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Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:

A Complete Guide

Jobs

The Jobs Available

Labour, Trades, Rigs, Camps and More

Now that we understand how the oil sands work and the impacts they have, let's find out how to actually go about working there. In this section we will look at what sorts of jobs are available at the entry level, or would be available after a short stint of entry level work. I am not endorsing the companies listed here, nor am I claiming this is an exhaustive list. I'm just scratching the surface to give you an idea of what is available.

The Alberta Jobs Picture

Panning to the macroeconomic view, the overall jobs picture for Alberta is very encouraging. Since the 2008-09 recession the provincial economy has been growing at an impressive 4.4%. This growth extends to every sector and soon jobs will outnumber workers; the government projects a shortage of 114,000 workers by 2021. They'll be forced to rely on immigration and workers from elsewhere in Canada to fill the gap. When there are more jobs than people companies are forced to outbid each other to fill positions, causing wages to surge. This can obviously be seen in Fort McMurray. The average Fort McMurray family is the richest in Canada, taking in an astonishing $187,000 a year, two and a half times the Canadian average.

Jobs in the oil and gas sector will account for the lion’s share of the expected job growth. Industry organizations like the Petroleum Human Resources Council are sounding the alarm on a looming labour shortage: Between 125,000 and 150,000 jobs in Alberta’s oil and gas sector will have to be filled in the next decade. Finding workers for these positions will become even more difficult if British Columbia starts building Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminals, attracting skilled workers to B.C.

Setting aside technical jobs that require extensive education, such as petroleum geology or mechanical engineering, let’s examine the jobs available to those who wish to show up and start work.

Carpentering.

Construction

The bulk of these jobs will be in construction, where I worked. Multi-billion dollar construction projects require thousands of blue collar workers and the most in-demand amongst them are the tradespeople. You can show up and almost immediately start apprenticing in a trade, or work as a labourer for a company specializing in one of the trades. If you are already a tradesperson working elsewhere then you probably a couple phone call away from doubling your income.

There seemed to follow a hierarchy of trades, with those residing at the top commanding the highest wages and driving the most jacked-up trucks, classic Alberta symbols of power and influence. In my estimation the hierarchy went something like this:

  • Crane Operator – Seem to sleep in their crane cabs all day until called upon to lift a 100 tonne boiler. They seem the most likely to kill someone if they screw up, and therefore apparently make around a quarter of a million dollars a year. They get to work with some very cool equipment.
  • Welding – For their services and that of their truck, known as a welding rig, experienced welders can command wages of $1,000 a day. The rigs usually have custom flames painted on the hood and are jacked so high off the ground they tower over the landscape.
  • Boilermaker/Millwright – Boilermakers make vessels, while millwrights make pumps and anything else that needs to be hewed from steel. Both work closely with the welders. I don’t really know much beyond that, but they do make a lot of money.
  • Steamfitter/Pipefitter – While pipefitting seems to me an oddly specific trade, they are in enormous demand because SAGD plants and upgraders are essentially giant mazes of pipes. A very lucrative field to get into.
  • Heavy Duty Mechanic – A skilled mechanic is one of a company’s most prized assets. Since machines are relied upon to do almost everything, those who can keep them running are handsomely compensated. Everyone is always happy to see the mechanic’s service truck.
  • Electricians – Otherwise known as sparkies. There is high demand for electricians and it seems to be one of the most popular trades with younger guys. There were nearly 300 electricians working on the final stages of the project I was involved with.
  • Plumbers – As far as I can see they drive around in a van trying to look busy for $50 an hour. We would often find the ill-tempered plumber parked in our hiding spots. When he does get a call the work can be unpleasant, especially in the cold.
  • Heavy Equipment Operator – Us labourers regarded the operators with envy. They could sit in their heated cabs and do what basically amounted to playing video games while we ran around outside shoveling dirt feverishly in a bid to stay warm. A sedentary lifestyle combined with liberal portions of deep-fried camp food means many operators balloon to enormous sizes. The line between labourers and operators is blurry with some of those hired as operators forced to work as labourers, and vice versa (much to our glee). Operating most equipment doesn’t necessarily require any credentials beyond a Class 5 Drivers License, so if you work with the right companies you will often get trained on the skid-steer, loader or rock truck.
  • Carpentry – Not many carpenters work on these projects since no building is done in wood, save the temporary lunch rooms and offices. As I worked in Site Services I worked alongside the site’s few carpenters. I loved most of the people I worked with and the work was fun, so long as there was enough of it. Days could be slow with little to do, and the carpenters were not as well compensated as some of the other trades.
  • Ironworkers – Theirs is the job of manoeuvring gigantic steel girders into place. It sounds like very tough work, and I was casually offered ironworking jobs on a couple occasions. I did not take them because they would have meant substantial pay cuts from my labour job.
  • Scaffolding – The newest of the trades, scaffolders also seemed to have the rowdiest reputation. The several dozen scaffolders where I worked tended to get loudly trashed at night and their behaviour spawned rumours of lewd conduct in the camp rooms. Erecting scaffolds, basically steel K’Nex, five stories off the ground looked extremely unpleasant during driving snow storms and -30C winds.

Crane Operating

As labourers we happened to have a lot of down-time.

Then of course there were the labourers like me. Most construction contractors hire a few labourers. They drive around the project helping where they are needed, repairing buildings, shovelling snow, digging holes, organizing laydown yards, setting up trailers, fueling vehicles, putting up fences, spotting for equipment, really whatever simple tasks need getting done. It can get repetitive and occasionally strenuous, but it really is not that difficult. I found at my final job my time was roughly a third each of manual labour (lifting things or shoveling), one third carpentry and a third driving the truck. Those were the good busy days. Many days when there was nothing to do we might have to spend the entire day killing time or driving around in the truck attempting to look busy. As a labourer you will gross between $200 and $500 a day depending on how many hours you work and how many of those hours your company is willing to count as overtime. You can expect large raises within months and the longer you stay the more you will be paid for your time.

Many companies will give their labourers opportunities to climb the ladder. If you show competence, follow the myriad safety rules and avoid complaining, your bosses will likely encourage your enrolment in an apprenticeship in pursuance of a trade. Find a list of oil sands construction companies you can look for work with here.

Surveying

All those thousands of hectares of forest where this work is being done must be divided up and parcelled out somehow. Groups of surveyors ride quads or Argos into the woods and delineate the leaseholds for companies. For entry level people, a lot of this work apparently consists of holding up posts and taking measurements knee-deep in snow in the middle of the forest. Though I admit I did get jealous watching them zoom down the cut-lines on their quads every morning. Find a list of surveying companies here.

Rigging trucks.

The Rigs

If you’d like something tougher than construction, there are always the rigs. These align more closely with the popular image of the rough and tumble oil patch roughnecks than the relatively soft construction jobs I've been describing. The rigs move from place to place, sinking wells into the ground and then capping them off so later on a follow-up crew can build the proper above-ground pump infrastructure. Thousands of wells are drilled every year, and hundreds of rigs are in operation during the high-seasons in the depths of winter and the middle of summer. The rigs typically halt work during the muddy seasons from October-November and March-May.

Here you begin as a floorhand, and your job is to ensure everything on the rig floor is moving as smoothly and rapidly as possible. Sometimes contemptuously nicknamed “Worm” by your more senior colleagues, you may find the work arduous and dangerous. A friend of mine gave it a try: “There’s a lot of things on the rig floor that will squish you, that will scald you, that will take off a finger or even a hand if you lose focus for a second. It was stressful and I decided it wasn’t worth it.”

In our morning safety meetings we would often be briefed on safety accidents that had occurred nearby and more often than not they were on the rigs. They were sobering: Someone got in a fist fight and fell off the rig floor, landed on his head and is going to spend the rest of his life in a coma. Someone got acid on their face and is going to need facial reconstructive surgery. Someone walked into an H2S pocket and was medivaced to the hospital. Someone’s foot was crushed, etc, etc.

On the rigs you work longer, more irregular hours than in construction. Though the hourly rate for entry level in both fields seems roughly the same, the extra overtime for roughnecks adds up quickly. If this is something you’d be interested in, you're welcome to try! Find a list of drilling companies here.

Camp Staff and Desk Jobs

Construction contractors have a number of on-site support staff, managers, safety officers, receptionists, and human resources people. Many of these jobs seemed to require minimal credentials. Instead the hiring is done primarily through personal connections.

Then of course there are camp jobs. Providing rooms, hot meals, plumbing, WiFi and diversion to hundreds of people in the middle of the forest is itself a colossal logistical feat. The camps can be as large as a small town and require a small army of cooks, cleaners, maintenance workers, security guards, paramedics and drivers just to keep them running. There is no shortage of job openings at the companies contracted to do this. Find a list of camp and catering companies here.

Stern boss.

Warehouse

You may be surprised not to see any of the names of any of the large oil companies on the list below. I first began looking for work by browsing the career pages on the Shell and Suncor websites, seeing if they had positions for labourers. That is not how to find a job. The major oil companies contract out almost all the construction work. While there are lots of people on any given work site who work directly for the oil company, they are typically the construction managers, engineers, geologists and technical experts needed to oversee the project.

There is one entry level position available where you'd be working directly for a major oil company: the warehouse. These jobs entail doing virtually no work while making six figures. The oil companies take care of their own (company Ford Explorers, paid flights home, best accomodation, etc.), so these jobs are particularly plum pickings. Check the career pages on the oil company sites for warehouse jobs, though really you can do no better than know someone who already works for the company. Forklift experience is a plus.

Women in the Oil Sands

Some may read this and conclude there are no jobs for women in this traditionally male-dominated industry. This is absolutely not the case. That may have once been true, but Fort McMurray has changed rapidly in the last decade. Thousands of women work in the oil patch, welding pressure vessels and shoveling dirt, managing work crews and supervising safety, providing security and cleaning rooms.

The regional population is still skewed towards men, 57% to 43% across Wood Buffalo and even moreso on most work sites, but I don’t recall any trade or job completely absent women. Women certainly dominated some fields, managing logistics, human resources, safety, and communications for the companies I worked with. Most of the cleaners, camp staff and warehouse crews were female as well.

But many women work in the trades and as labourers too. A surprisingly large number of heavy equipment operators are women, often considered by managers to be more reliable than men. One talks about her life working as a Cat 797 driver at Suncor in this Edmonton Journal article. I remember two occasions where tradesmen remarked on the work ethic of the females on their crews: The women worked twice as hard as any man, they said, and earned the respect and admiration of their peers.

This seems commonplace: many of the women succeeding in this traditionally male-dominated industry work hard and prove they are as much if not more capable than men. Few managers, I think, subscribe to the pigheaded notion that women are incapable of doing this or that job. Instead everyone is judged on their capabilities, regardless of gender. Though I am not qualified to say with any authority, as far as I could see the work environment was inclusive and welcoming to women and there were many job opportunities for them.

Some Big Machines You'll See

What Else

The age of the $16 an hour burger-flipper at the Fort McMurray McDonald’s is no more. Thousands of temporary foreign workers have moved to Fort McMurray in recent years and work many of the jobs within the city itself, meaning service wages in town are back down to the Canadian average and it is not advisable to go to Fort McMurrayfor one of these jobs. Yet the city is experiencing growing pains and, it seemed to me at least, various niches continue to go unfilled.

Most of the small companies in the region lack good websites, for instance, yet they certainly have the money to pay for them. There aren't really any web design firms based in Fort McMurray. An enterprising web designer could easily set up shop in the city and have more business than he or she could handle. It’s a similar case for journalism. In a city that sometimes seems deeply mired in corruption, where oil companies seem to have bought off each and every individual, local investigative journalism is shockingly lacking. The only real journalism seems to get done when a reporter from the Edmonton Journal gets sent north to look into something worthy of wider news coverage. Failing that residents have to rely on radio DJs reciting RCMP press releases verbatim. These were only two apparent examples, I’m sure there are dozens more. If you have entrepreneurial flair and can withstand the city’s astronomical rents then I imagine there are few better places to set up a business.

Construction Companies

Electrical

A 12-storey crane capable of hoisting 440 tons, or the weight of 7 M1 Abrams tanks.

Hauling and Support

Crane and Rigging

Waste and Recycling

Safety

Surveying

An Oil Rig.

The Oil Rigs

Camp Cleaning and Catering

Security

Vrooom!