When Angel Fernandez, a former production engineer with Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company, relocated to Canada’s oil-sands region, it wasn’t for the weather. The draw was a paycheck that he said can stretch as much as 100 times further.
“It’s been very difficult adjusting to temperatures” that typically max out at -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), Fernandez said in an interview. “But for the opportunity, it’s worth it.”
Fernandez, 33, is part of a growing exodus of skilled oilfield workers from Venezuela, where real wages for engineers have fallen to the equivalent of less than $400 a month, about 9 percent of the global average. The world’s worst inflation, swelling crime rates and a plunging currency are prompting others to move abroad, dragging down oil production at a time when slumping crude prices threaten the country’s export revenue.
While Venezuela’s foreign affairs ministry has declined to provide emigration data, job websites show surging interest. The number of Venezuelans with active resumes on Rigzone.com, a Houston-based oil and gas research company with an employment database, jumped 22 percent this year through October, and is up 68 percent over 2011. Daily page views on MeQuieroIr.com, which helps Venezuelans looking to emigrate, reached 180,000 to 200,000 in September and October, compared with an average of 60,000 for the past four years.
“This is the highest and most prolonged traffic spike we have experienced since we launched in 2001,” MeQuieroIr.com Director Esther Bermudez said in an e-mailed response to questions. Bermudez worked for seven years in Petroleos de Venezuela SA’s public affairs department in Caracas, before emigrating to Montreal in 2001.
PDVSA is pumping about 8,000 barrels per employee per day, compared to about 26,000 barrels in 2004, according to the trade group Gente del Petroleo. While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has pledged to double output, few in the industry are confident this goal can be reached.
“It’s clear they don’t have the human capacity to lift output,” said Eddie Ramirez, the group’s director and a former PDVSA employee who has long criticized the government. Production peaked in 2008 at 3.2 million barrels a day, and last year slid by 11,000 barrels to 2.9 million a day. PDVSA declined to comment on turnover rates.
Real wages for engineers in Venezuela with five to six years of experience are less than $400 a month, based on guidelines published by Venezuela’s Engineering College. That’s about 9 percent of the global average of $4,333 a month, according to Hays 2013 Oil & Gas Global Salary Guide. Three years ago, Venezuela’s engineers took home about about 80 percent of the global average.
The currency has lost 85 percent on the black market since Maduro took office in April 2013. The inflation rate, at 63 percent, is “destroying wages,” said Jose Bodas, general secretary of the Federal Union of Venezuelan Oil Workers or FUTPV, which represents about 100,000 workers at PDVSA.
“There’s no oil worker in the world that makes as little as you do in Venezuela,” he said.
In neighboring Colombia, engineers make more than four times more, about $1,650 a month. That’s drawing Venezuela’s oil workers across the border. The country issued 4,234 temporary identity cards to Venezuelans in the first half of this year. That’s 6.9 percent more than all of last year and more than double 2012 levels, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Those figures don’t identify specific occupations.
Colombia’s oil engineering council CPIP and its union USO both say the number of Venezuelans entering the industry is increasing, accounting for 70 percent of professional licenses handed out to foreigners.
Fernandez, the former PDVSA engineer, moved last year to Grande Prairie, Alberta, where the temperature in January typically ranges from -10 to -20.9 degrees Celsius. He earns more than $100,000 a year working for Encana Corp. (ECA)
When he left PDVSA, his paycheck was worth about $1,000 a month; that’s at official exchange rates, which almost nobody gets. The real rate, the unofficial, black market exchange rate available to everyday folk, would give him about $38 now.
“The major driver was economic,” he said.
Venezuela’s bolivar fell to a record low of 166 bolivars per dollar on the black market today compared to official rates that range from 6.3 to 50, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the rate on the Colombian border.
For Jesus Castro, 38, crime was another reason to leave behind family and friends in Barquisimeto, western Venezuela, where he worked as a PDVSA electrical maintenance supervisor.
“I didn’t want my children to grow up like caged birds,” he said by telephone from Calgary, where he works as a project manager for utility EnMax Corp. In the past four years, he said he’s seen an influx of Venezuelans. “Friends, family, sometimes people I don’t even know personally call me asking how to fill in forms, get a visa or help to find a job.”
The wave of emigration has accelerated this year after Maduro devalued the currency in May, said Ivan Freites, a union official with FUTPV.
“We’ve seen an uptick in departures due to the additional financial pressures on workers created with devaluation,” Freites said in an interview in Caracas. An earlier exodus followed a general strike in 2002 and 2003, and about three-fourths of the estimated 20,000 people who left PDVSA then are now working in countries including Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, or in the Middle East, he said.
Datanalisis polls shows 10 percent of the population is thinking about emigrating in the near future, more than double levels of two years ago, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas-based research company.
Departures aren’t reflected in PDVSA’s headcount, which rose 6 percent last year to 140,626, according to its 2013 annual report. That’s because people who leave are usually replaced, though often by lesser trained and less experienced people, Freites said.
“My salary, benefits and professional development opportunities are depressing when compared to other Latin America markets,” Gonzalo Guinand, an engineer at one of Venezuela’s largest engineering and construction contractors, whose biggest client is PDVSA, said by telephone from Caracas. “I don’t see a promising future here if the economic and political situations don’t change for the better.”