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Oilsands battleground for skilled workers

63 projects underway: Incentives growing as hiring tactics get more creative


Claudia Cattaneo, Calgary Bureau Chief


Financial Post

Monday, August 19, 2002

Edmonton Journal

The isolated location of the oilsands projects continues to dissuade many from taking jobs.


National Post

Oilsands operators will need to fill 10,000 jobs in the next nine years.



FORT McMURRAY, Alta. - The courting of Carey Murphy started at a Syncrude Canada Ltd. job fair in Saint John.

A worker at a New Brunswick refinery, he went to the February event out of curiosity, but says he had no intention of moving to Northeastern Alberta, amidst the clusters of pipes and burners shooting up 200 feet .

The Syncrude reps told him about the big pay, the benefits, the opportunities for quick advancement. They offered to fly him and his fiancée, Lesley, to Fort McMurray -- no strings attached. They offered to pay for his move, plus a generous transition allowance. Then they offered to hire Lesley.

Mr. Murphy relented and the couple started in May.

"For someone who wants big things out of life, this is the place to come," said Mr. Murphy, 26, a six-footer with a broad smile who monitors and operates equipment in the cokers, proudly sporting Syncrude's blue coveralls.

Syncrude has good reason to be so aggressive. In the heart of the oilsands, a five-hour drive from the nearest Starbucks, skilled workers are in huge demand.

With $80-billion in developments underway in 63 different projects, Canada's oilsands deposits are a battleground for talent -- where the incentives are getting bigger and the hiring tactics more and more creative.

It's a war where new players are courting experienced workers from established plants and established operators are fighting to keep their own staff and even hire to keep up with growth.

Some are mounting recruiting drives across the country and around the world.

All this at a time when companies are facing huge cost overruns.

"They are trying to contain a bidding war [for workers], because it's in nobody's interest," said William Almdal, regional co-ordinator for the Athabasca Oil Sands Developers.

The group, formed by oilsands companies to find solutions to common challenges, estimates the region's plants will need to fill more than 10,000 full-time jobs in the next nine years.

Those are big numbers, said Mr. Almdal, considering that Fort McMurray has a population of 47,000, and that each plant job creates another three jobs in the city, where there are already so many openings nearly every store in the city (a.k.a. Fort McMoney) has a help-wanted sign and McDonald's pays $10 an hour.

The deluge of full-time jobs is coming from expansions by established operators, Syncrude and Suncor Energy Inc., as well as the first large startups since Syncrude began 25 years ago.

The Albian oil sands project, for example -- majority owned by Shell Canada Ltd. -- is in the process of recruiting 600 workers for permanent jobs in anticipation of production by the end of the year.

The TrueNorth project, majority owned by U.S. private industrial giant Koch Industries Inc., and the Horizon project, owned by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., are also preparing for major recruiting drives. Then there are myriad smaller projects, all looking to hire full-time people.

- - -

Recruitment has been a challenge since the beginning of oil sands operations in the 1960s. Isolation, lack of amenities and some of the highest housing prices in the country have contributed to the difficulty of attracting workers.

Until the latest boom, which began about five years ago, fuelled by new technologies that reduced costs, Suncor, which started its plant 35 years ago, and Syncrude, met their hiring needs by working with local educational institutions and hiring heavily from the area's native communities.

Competing companies have had an informal agreement they would not raid each other's work forces.

But with more competition, informal agreements have been forgotten: the best place to find skilled oil sands workers is in the oil sands, Mr. Almdal said.

"They have to attract workers one way or another, and at the same time work with everybody. It's a fine line they are walking," he said.

Among those who recently switched employers is Merle Mastrachuk, 47, an expert in ore preparation. He joined Albian last year after 23 years with Syncrude.

"They offered me some excellent opportunities to broaden my horizons," said Mr. Mastrachuk. "I liked the concept that Albian portrayed. There seems to be a friendly aura, an openness and respect for people, enthusiasm, the right atmosphere and environment."

Along with competitive salaries, Albian came up with incentives to give it an edge, including a three-month-pay signing bonus, a bi-weekly travel allowance of $162; free busing to and from work; various education programs; four weeks of holidays to start, plus a four-day work week with longer shifts to cut commuting time. Albian is more than an hour's drive from the city, well past the Suncor and Syncrude operations, across what is known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

Mr. Mastrachuk, who gets up before 4 a.m. to get to the plant by 6:25 a.m., doesn't mind the long hours. He said the vacation and shift policies are so generous, he essentially works six months a year and travels the world the rest of the time.

"You are only here half the time when you are working 12-hour shifts," he said.

Albian official Pam Ashcroft said the plant has relied on advertising and recruitment drives to fill positions while avoiding overtly going after competitors' workers. So far, 382 people have been hired. A big drive is under way to fill jobs in the mining side of the operation.

Finding qualified personnel has not been difficult, she said, noting the project received 17,000 resumés from across the country in the past year.

Many were attracted by the ability to build something from the ground up, even if it meant doing without basic workplace amenities like offices and cafeterias.

Unlike Suncor and Syncrude, which boast nice permanent buildings, many of Albian's employees -- including the 50-member finance team -- work out of trailers.

"The word 'flexible' was used 15 times in my job interview," said Ms. Ashcroft, also formerly of Syncrude and delighted with the job change.

"That is what attracts a lot of people. It's the opportunity to contribute, to grow and develop and advance."

The TrueNorth and Canadian Natural plants operations, located even farther from Fort McMurray than Albian, are looking at other incentives. The two are the next in line for construction with startup expected by 2005.

Both are studying building landing strips for widebody aircraft so they can fly in large numbers of workers from Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer. Only a core group would need to be based locally.

"We think there is a segment of the workforce that would be favourably disposed toward the concept of maintaining their current residence, flying in, doing their work, and flying out," said D'Arcy Levesque, spokesman for TrueNorth.

But the plant also plans to recruit staff from competitors because it needs oil sands experience, and is conducting "focus testing" to come up with incentives that would set it apart. Provided it receives regulatory approval this fall, TrueNorth will need to fill 600 jobs by 2005, and another 600 by 2008.

It is looking at a selection of benefits allowing greater flexibility and providing a superior work environment, such as employee facilities with a health-club feel.

Meanwhile, Suncor and Syncrude are erecting defences to keep workers from leaving.

Suncor, a publicly traded company with 2,300 oil sands employees (including 500 who were hired last year to man the new Millennium expansion), has implemented a generous stock option plan, is offering $2,000 bonuses for those who successfully refer new employees, and has launched recruitment drives in South Africa and the U.K.

"Clearly, there is increased demand for all employees involved in oil sands. Almost any employee here is valuable in the market place," said Eric Ingle, manager of labour relations. "But you also want the company to be so good that employees won't want to leave."

And that's a big carrot for many.

Sue Lowell, for example, a mining engineer originally from Montreal who joined Suncor 23 years ago, said working in a plant that pioneered oil sands development, and continues to be the leader in oil sands technology, represents its own reward.

Syncrude emphasizes a non-union environment that offers more flexibility with work assignments and opportunities for quick advancement, education and training on the job, leading- edge technology, generous time -off policies that in addition to four weeks of paid holidays include 16 approved days off -- known to its globe travelling staff as adios -- and the ability to obtain even more time off.

And while its exit interviews show about 80% of its people leave because of location, Syncrude also highlights what it says is the area's high quality of life and energetic community, where the average age is 29.

Mr. Murphy, with a baby on the way and wedding plans for December, still can't believe his good fortune and is looking forward to a long stay, along with the exotic trips he can now afford.

"If they stay true to everything they told me, they have an employee for many, many years."

© Copyright  2002 National Post





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