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By Virginia Heffernan

Reports of massive layoffs in the oil industry keep coming. In January – with oil plunging below US$50 per barrel – two of the biggest oil service providers, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, announced collective layoffs totaling 16,000 workers worldwide.

If oil prices remain at multi-year lows as expected, about 23,000 jobs related directly and indirectly to drilling in Canada will be lost, says the CAODC, the association representing oilwell drill contractors. Suncor Energy (a major oil sands producer) plans to cut 1,000 jobs, and Precision Drilling and Cenovus Energy say they will lay off up to 2,000 workers combined.

Naturally, breadwinners in the oil and gas sector are feeling nervous. But full-time FIFO workers such as those employed in Alberta’s oil sands need not panic, says Jim Fearon, central region vice president for recruiting firm Hays Canada. The oil industry is accustomed to riding waves of price volatility and it is in their best interest to retain workers until the cycle turns positive again.

"Most of the companies are going to try to reallocate employees internally, if necessary," he says.

Here is Fearon’s advice for FIFO employees concerned about job cuts:

Be flexible and mobile

Be prepared to move to a different site, or different job, either in Canada or internationally as companies try to reallocate costs and maximize efficiency in a low oil price environment. The move may be short term, but being flexible will allow you to keep your job now and stand you in good stead for future employment. A willingness to add a few hours to your commuting time may make the difference between remaining employed and heading home for an unintended holiday.

Consider a pay cut

In lean times, producers prefer to cut salaries across the board to save costs rather than reduce staff. Because the business cycle can change so quickly, they don’t want to be left scrambling to find skilled workers when the oil price improves. Lay offs can be minimized and even avoided if employees collectively agree to take a 10-15 per cent pay cut, a temporary measure that employee groups can negotiate to be as painless as possible.

Acquire downturn-proof skills

If you do lose your job, consider retraining for a position that is sustainable through a downturn. Even as oil producers slash spending, pockets of skill shortages remain, especially in upstream production facilities. Anyone with maintenance, safety or efficiency skills or specialized tradespeople, such as electricians, will remain in high demand throughout the cycle. Individuals or contractors offering innovative technology to produce oil less expensively, in particular, will benefit.

Have patience

What comes down must go up, eventually. When oil prices last collapsed in 2008-09, Canada shed an estimated 15,000 workers. Those high-paying jobs, and more, returned as prices rose and Canada’s production reached nearly four million barrels per day.

By 2030, daily production is forecast to reach 6.4 million barrels including 4.8 million from the oil sands. Anyone with oil patch experience is going to be courted over the long term, even if short-term prospects look bleak.

More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit