As a senior level IT specialist in the energy industry for 11 years for a large engineering firm in Calgary, Brian Prigotzke thought he was safe from the chopping block. He quickly found out that even seasoned veterans are also vulnerable to cuts.
“All of a sudden they pulled 50 of us into the boardroom and told us we were being let go that moment,” he recalls. “I felt disheartened that the company was willing to let us all go because they were moved everything to Malaysia for cheaper labour. That part hurt.”
After the initial shock passed, he saw an opportunity—and a challenge, to expand his horizons. With over 25 years’ experience in IT including banking in Regina, he moved to Calgary in 2000 to seek change in the oil patch.
“I’ve been working in ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and data infrastructure, but I’ve also become a bit of a generalist,” he says. “Literally the first thing I was get a hold of the large contingency of colleagues via LinkedIn.”
At first, he thought he would be snapped up quickly—moving laterally somewhere in the city for the same wage, benefits and perks.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was for a non-employee to find something. As soon as I saw that people weren’t hiring, period, I had to figure out how I can get along as far as dollars I need. As long as the work is in the realm that I am capable of, I am happy to take contracts. I didn’t care if it was short or long term. I just wanted to be working again instead of sitting on a package. It’s not in my DNA.”
Prigotzke turned to recruitment experts as part of his fan out, including Debbie Carson, a senior recruiter and trainer at Bowen Workforce Hiring. She reviewed his resume, gave him some tips and also invited him to attend of the agency’s free courses on job search methods.
Using her techniques, combined with his own gumption and willingness to change, he applied for several contract positions, landing one with a mid-sized natural gas company. Looking back, he says the experience helped him see where he was stuck at a personal development level.
“This contract gives me interesting work right up front. It changes all the time. As a full time employee I found I was getting into a rut, not having exposure to many things. As a contractor, you come up to speed real quick and see the gains of what you have done quickly. Then you get to do it again. Everything is new that I’m tackling. I’m finding I’m waking up before my alarm.”
Meanwhile, several of Prigotzke’s peers are still on the bench waiting for their chance. Another harsh reality. He’s trying to stay confident for them too, offering advice on how he got back in the game so quickly. He says specialists that have gotten themselves into being a one trick pony are going to have the hardest time.
“A lot of them haven’t come to the realization yet and some are reluctant,” he says. “I’ve got one fellow who is sticking to his guns and only wants a job at the rate he is used to getting. I have told guys like him to figure out what minimum you need to live on and market yourself at all different levels. I found a bottom, I had an ideal, I can pay the bills and keep the lights on at home.”
FLEXIBLE CANDIDATES NEED APPLY
Carson says she has talked with hundreds of people who have the same story as Prigotzke. The chasm between getting hired and staying on unemployment, however, is widened by those expecting the same results in a job search that they had before.”
“Candidates need to be creative,” she says. “Permanent positions are now being reallocated to contract workers, so roles are being split up in to shifts, salary expectations are being re-evaluated. They are looking to build out their teams but they are really wanting candidates that can offer more than just the job description.”
Fears are still persistent—it’s only natural she says. But there is a sense of fatigue of the roller coaster ride that the energy sector provides.
“Candidates are telling me that in terms of ideas and fears, a lot of them are trying to get out of oil and gas and moving away,” Carson states. “It’s not always an easy time to switch industries, because potential hiring managers feel they will jump ship. At our Job Club, coaching sessions help them handle the endless loop of the energy industry.”
The good news, she says, is that hiring managers are also opening their minds to possibilities.
“Companies are basically in a tough market and they are looking for positions that they rely upon on a regular basis, financial and project managers, analysist, marketing, sales and IT. Then you can even get more granular—transport, warehousing, telecommunications utilities, insurance, health services, retail—there still is a lot going on.”
Specialists are still needed, but companies are benefiting more from the generalists who can pitch in. The trend now is to look for people with experience in process or increase in efficiency, managing spending and innovation.
“It’s a mind shift and it’s refreshing. They are looking at who can help with growth of the company, instead of hearing ‘that’s not in my job description’. Candidates and employers need to look at the fact that they can stretch themselves and their department’s capabilities and professional growth.”
Carson reminds candidates that recruiters are looking for them online first, so updating or even creating a LinkedIn profile is essential. Business cards with credentials and skills can go a long way in a networking situation. She also suggests applying to companies that aren’t even hiring.
“It’s a way to be remembered among all the applicants that are just as qualified. The days of applying online and waiting by the phone are over. You have to get out there and talk with people, find out what they need and sell your skills and flexibility. Don’t fudge the details either. Employers will find out in the end and it could come back to haunt you.”
Diana Camelo, a marketing and communications specialist, was laid off from her coordinator position at Husky. As a parent of a five year-old son, and a new home owner just over a year ago, she couldn’t get through the fear of the unknown without staying positive and focused.
“My friends have told me that it is amazing how I am dealing with things and how calm I am. I think it is vital. The moment you freak out, it’s chaos.”
Equally bad news came the day before this interview, when her father, Edgar, a chemical engineer and trainer with 40 years’ experience, was part of another round of layoffs at Baker Hughes.
“This would be tough for him because he’s been working since he got out of university,” she says. “He is the breadwinner for the family. I was also relying on him for help here and here, so there is a lot of pressure is on him to find new work elsewhere. He may have to find contract work on projects in other cities, and I know he will be valuable wherever he goes.”
Just like Brian Prigotzke, Camelo dusted off her resume and applied for any available marketing job. She soon found she was competing with up to 500 applicants. So she decided to dig back into her past as an administrator and customer service specialist.
Prigotzke can relate with Camelo to the ripple effect of unemployment.
“My son Kyle, 26 recently lost his job too,” adds Prigotzke. “He’s been working in IT just over a year, so basically, he’s seeing how I dealt with it. I tell him to wake up every morning and make it your job to make a new contact.”
Taking his father’s advice, Kyle is applying to multiple companies each day, making connections and staying upbeat. His father tells him that back on the heyday, a comfortable job in the patch came faster with less effort. Now, it’s a game of strategy, flexibility and self-promotion to get noticed.
“In today’s marketplace, you have to work twice as hard as you ever had,” Brian states. Don’t leave it to the last minute when you’re running out of your payout or employment insurance. Make an effort to get out there to be known to someone who has yet to meet you.”
DOING MORE WITH LESS
For those companies that have laid off droves of workers, and are still in steady operation, doing more with less is becoming the norm. Elizabeth Aquin, senior vice president at the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC) in Calgary, says companies are doing their utmost to keep as many key, experienced people as possible—a difficult thing to do historically.
“In the last downturn in ’07-08, PSAC members alone lost almost 30% of their workforce. This was a tremendous loss of intellectual capital. However, labour costs are a substantial portion of service companies’ budgets. We are seeing companies cutting pay, unpaid time off, termination of perquisites such as RSP contributions, bonuses, etc. They are also reducing overhead as well as much as possible in order to keep the lights on and service debt.”
Bracing for impact on the upside of the story, Aquin says PSAC has heard concerns from members about building resources back up once things turn around--a sign of optimism, in her opinion.
It’s a question of when, not if, as they have worked so hard to find, recruit and train people over the last few years,” she says. “They are worried that those who leave now will be so disillusioned with the industry that they will not return. In fact, I just heard a story that one individual says that despite having to take a lower salary in another industry since being laid off, he will not return because raising a family requires a steady pay cheque.”
Looking back at the lessons of slowed market activity, a common discussion, Aquin says diversification and willingness to look into global markets and partnerships can be valuable for service companies that are dependent on the budgets set by their customers for their activity.
“Having more than one service to offer and perhaps seeking international opportunities, is a better hedge to make through difficult times. As well for companies, clean balance sheets always afford opportunities so keeping debt under control is also key,” she concludes.