Grad ’14 and jobs for the future

It's high school graduation season. There are a lot of grad traditions, and one of the oldest is for old folks - and for this year's class, that means anyone born before 1996 - to shower grads in unwanted job advice.

It’s high school graduation season. There are a lot of grad traditions, and one of the oldest is for old folks – and for this year’s class, that means anyone born before 1996 – to shower grads in unwanted job advice.

So what will the future job market in the Yukon look like? What will clever members of the Class of ‘14 do to set themselves up for productive, interesting and well-paid careers?

I think the big issue is that the north-western part of North America is in the early stages of a truly gigantic building boom, but that for better or worse this boom is likely to largely pass the Yukon by.

Several more multi-billion dollar oilsands mines are planned in Northern Alberta. Fracking and gas development could get equally huge in an arc from Fort Nelson to Kitimat. Alaska also has big plans for natural gas.

All of these projects will need infrastructure. That means both infrastructure directly related to energy production, such as pipelines and gas liquefaction export terminals, as well as roads, airports, bridges, housing developments, hospitals and so on.

I recently had dinner with a lobbyist for a big infrastructure company, and he was as bullish on careers in infrastructure as the guy in the 1960s-era movie The Graduate who told Dustin Hoffman that plastics were the future.

The Financial Post recently reported on the wave of retirements expected in the oilpatch, based on a study by human resources consultants at Mercer. Apparently 81 per cent of Canadian oil and gas companies say the “technical skills gap” is a critical problem. The looming retirement of aging workers will exacerbate this issue, as will the estimated 60,000 workers the B.C. government estimates will be needed to build out that province’s liquefied natural gas industry.

Yukon high schools don’t offer courses in economics, but most high school grads will know that big projects and an aging workforce will create lots of opportunities for young people.

Mercer’s salary database confirms the impression that oilpatch jobs pay well. A senior welder makes an average of $90,000 in the oilpatch, versus $70,000 if he or she works in another industry. An experienced millwright averages $87,000 in the oilpatch versus $67,000 elsewhere.

Nor is the difference limited to skilled trades. An entry-level project manager averages $93,000 in the oilpatch, versus $67,000 in other industries.

These are just facts. They are not advice that every Yukon grad should get on a bus to Fort Nelson.

Now let’s think about what the future job market in the Yukon might look like. They have a couple of strategies open to them.

The first is to jump on the energy boom bandwagon. This means getting trained as a welder, millwright or similar skilled trade, or another hot job family such as engineering, project management or environmental studies. There will be lots of jobs. Unfortunately, not very many of them will be in the Yukon.

I might turn out to be wrong on this, but my sense is that the political winds are blowing against big energy development in the Yukon. The government has already put a moratorium on serious gas exploration in the Whitehorse trough. The anti-fracking movement in the Yukon is big and loud, and we’ve just had several medical officers of health testify in worried tones at the Yukon legislature’s committee on the future of fracking.

The second strategy is to look around Whitehorse and identify an existing job family you like here. There will be lots of jobs in administration and government, although these sectors don’t grow very fast. Getting in the door and moving up the ladder will require waiting for the older generation to retire and create job openings. This will definitely happen, but perhaps not as fast as you might like.

Another local option is retail or wholesale trade. Even if the Yukon economy remains dominated by government, there will always be steady business serving local consumers and companies.

Finally, you can try to find a career in an “export” industry. I don’t necessarily mean exporting things, but rather jobs that rely on non-Yukon money to keep them going. You could be a wilderness tourism operator for high-end visitors, which could be a lot of fun. You could be a musician, author or an artist, based in the Yukon but touring and selling your work globally. Or you could work for one of those environmental organizations bankrolled by Outside foundations. All of these choices provide interesting work and they let you live in the Yukon.

One question I can’t answer is how such local careers will be affected by a giant energy boom happening in B.C. and Alberta. While the boom wouldn’t be happening here, under the assumptions above, it would affect us. On the one hand, surging salaries in B.C. and Alberta would put upward pressure on salaries here. This would be great for locals, who would get higher wages without having to put up with the mayhem of Fort McMurray.

On the other hand, you might see quite a few friends leave for energy opportunities. Or, if you ran your own business, your labour costs might rise sharply as you competed for labour with B.C. and Alberta but didn’t have so many big-wallet spenders walking in your front door.

I am sure many of you will disagree with this column. But don’t write the editor. Instead, I encourage you to find someone with a Grad ‘14 jacket and tell them what to do instead.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith