projects underway: Incentives growing as hiring tactics get more creative
Cattaneo, Calgary Bureau Chief
Monday, August 19, 2002
isolated location of the oilsands projects continues to dissuade many
from taking jobs.
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
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.
have had an informal agreement they would not raid each other's work
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
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
"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.
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.
'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.
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
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
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