Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:
A Complete Guide
How To Find A Job
It's Easy If You Try
Here in one easily referenced place you'll find everything you need to jump right in, knowledge I’ve gleaned through a lot of expensive and time-consuming trial and error.
What You Need
- Ability to Work in Canada Legally.
If you cannot work in Canada following through on this scheme will be more difficult, but far from impossible. There are a number of ways to get a visa to work in Canada. Skilled workers are often sponsored through a company, though this makes switching around jobs difficult. There were dozens of Irish equipment operators, for instance, with one of the companies I worked with. Canada has visa treaties with a number of countries which make it easy for youth (under 30) to come here on working holidays. Read about it here. For Americans the best option might be the SWAP program, which allows students and recent graduates to come work in Canada. For people from other countries there is the temporary foreign worker program, but because of recent political events the future of that program is in doubt. If you have specific questions about your country leave a comment and I can see what is available out there for you.
A Driver’s License.
Very few jobs involve physically walking anywhere. Nobody walks, that’s ridiculous; they drive, and a driver’s license is a huge boost to your employability. Employers don’t seem to differentiate between a full license and an L or N graduated license. If you have a Class 1 to 4 commercial vehicle license you’re laughing all the way to the bank.
The CSTS (Construction Safety Training System) is the most basic safety certification. It’s a $65 online course available here. Completing it takes five tedious hours. It is practically impossible to fail. If you get one of the multiple choice questions wrong the computer will keep repeating the question until you happen upon the right answer.
It's a good idea to have a resume that includes any construction or physical work experience you have. The Provincial Employment Office told me to take my university education off the resume. Just include things that are relevant, ie. you can read, can operate basic tools like a hammer and you can pass a drug test. Try to put an Alberta address.
As you will learn from the CSTS, all work sites in the oil sands demand PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) be worn at all times. At a minimum this includes the ubiquitous blue coveralls, hard hat, goggles, gloves, and CSA approved steel-toed boots. Companies will supply everything except the steel-toed boots. If it is winter or spring you will want steel-toed rubber boots.
What It Doesn’t Hurt to Have
Of course there’s much you can do to improve your employability. Dozens of specialized tickets like Confined Space, Fall Arrest and Ground Disturbance are available and only take one or two days training. Yet I would caution against investing too heavily in extra training before landing a job. Often it won’t prove necessary, and if it is your employer might bear the cost. It's also a good idea to be wary of employers dangling the prospect of employment in front of you if you get whatever tickets, unless you get it in writing. You might take a $200 course and find they have hired someone else in the meantime.
There are two exceptions to this rule, H2S Alive and First Aid training. Though not essential, they open up enough doors to warrant consideration before embarking on the job search.
This certification is needed to work on almost all projects where petroleum extraction or drilling is underway. Hydrogen Sulfide, H2S, is a colourless poisonous gas that is sometimes released as a by-product of oil and gas drilling. H2S Alive teaches you how to protect yourself and others from this fact of life in the oil industry. The ticket costs $275 and is a one-day in person course. Available all over Alberta.
OHSA legislates that employers must maintain trained first responders on the payroll. Their number and level of training depends on the total number of people at the work site. A small crew will need only one or two First Aid Level 1 trained employees, while a large project must maintain several full-time ambulance crews. Employers will look favourably upon any First Aid training on your resume. Here's a list of approved certifiers.
These will cover you for most construction, labour and drilling positions. If you would like to become a security guard a $350 online course available here should qualify you for most positions.
If you are considering a job in a camp kitchen Food Safe will help, but is not an absolute requirement under Alberta law.
Gathered to hear a motivational speech, everyone is in some variety of PPE. This was a pretty funny occasion, it was just before the completion of the massive two year project and we were all gathered for what I expected would be some soaring rhetoric and celebration. Instead the project manager's speech went "Well the client has paid for this plant so they will not be happy if it doesn't work when it turns on. So make sure it turns on. That is all."
Go To Alberta
Hopefully you meet these basic requirements. Now you want to find a job. How to go about it?
I would strongly recommend going to Alberta.
The reason is proximity. It is easy to sit in a coffee shop in your hometown of Vancouver or Houston and fire off resumes in the hopes some company will call you up and ask you to come work. This doesn’t work, at least not for the jobs we’re talking about.
A lot of people get fired every day, and even more are hired. It’s easy-come, easy-go. If you’re new in a company your more seasoned coworkers will half-jokingly tell you they aren’t going to bother remembering your name because odds are you’ll be gone in a week. In this high turnover atmosphere bodies are needed to fill jobs yesterday. So when a company asks when you're available and you admit to being over 1,000 kilometres away, you're probably not going to get the job.
Hi-Edmonton Hostel. It's about $35 a night. There will likely be other people there seeking work in the oil sands. It is a good place to network and find job tips.
So where to go in Alberta? I began my job search by going to Fort McMurray, which was a mistake. Accommodation in Fort McMurray is absurdly expensive. The cheapest hotel was $110 a night, and the shelter is filled to capacity. I was surprised to find few companies did their hiring out of the boomtown. Instead I would recommend going to Edmonton. There are a couple of relatively cheap hostels there where you can stay while you search for a job. You can avoid paying for accommodation altogether by making an appealing profile on Couchsurfers, and canvassing people on there for a couch to sleep on, which is far easier than you might think.
Once in Alberta the job search could take some time, up to two weeks. To make it work I recommend you bring around $2,000 to fall back on. Live frugally and husband your resources. This may sound like a gamble but with sufficient determination you will find a job and recoup your start-up costs in no time.
The season is also something to consider. The entire Wood Buffalo region becomes a soggy quagmire in the late fall and early spring. Many companies, especially the drillers, cut back their operations and lay off workers in these periods, creating a small labour glut. When the ground hardens in late November and early May they ramp up the work load and hiring begins in earnest. Therefore these are the best times to find a job. You will have a much easier time of it in May or June than February or September.
Talk to People
Now that you’re in Alberta and have a bed to sleep on you can begin your search. The most popular way to do this is by networking. The Alberta petroleum industry indulges in enough cronyism and nepotism to make a Chinese politburo member blush. There is a stack of resumes as thick as a Yellow Pages on every manager’s desk—and they are all collecting dust. When a job needs filling the resumes are apparently only a refuge of last resort. Instead most hiring goes through friends or family. If not the manager’s friends or family, then literally anyone who calls and can drop a name. At least in my experience.
So when you’re in Alberta you bypass the stack of resumes by talking to everyone you can. Go to bars, company offices, job sites, bus stations, everywhere. Ask people if they know someone who works in the industry, and if their company might be hiring. Edmonton is home of the Oilers; Almost everyone knows someone who works in oil and many will give you a number to call. Most people are very encouraging and eager to help. Talking to people, even if they can’t directly aid you, will raise your spirits and give you the confidence that a job is right around the corner because everyone in Alberta knows that getting a job in the oil field is easy.
Pick Up The Phone
Of course you cannot rely solely on your interpersonal skills. That could potentially take too long. Instead follow this simple strategy, which has proven remarkably successful for me and my friends.
- Go to the Yellow Pages online and look up the Fort McMurray listing of oil field service companies.
- Phone the first company in the list. Ask them if they have any jobs for labourers or at entry level.
They will either say:
a. "Yes," in which case you now have a job.
b. "Go to the website," in which case you go and submit a resume. This can eventually pay dividends.
c. "No," in which case you go to the next company and phone them.
- Continue phoning every company down the list that sounds even remotely relevant to what you want to do and repeat the process. Call companies where it isn’t even clear what they do.
- If they sound at all hesitant or that there may be jobs in the future then tell them your name. Make them remember you. Call them periodically to remind them you exist and you want to work for them. Follow up every lead doggedly.
- Try searching the Yellow Pages for companies around Conklin, Fort Mackay, Leduc, Cold Lake, Lac La Biche and Nisku. Also look at this Municipal Government contact list of trades companies. There are thousands of companies.
- You can also search the job sites such as Fort McMurray Jobs, Fort McMurray Online, Indeed, Workopolis, and Kijiji. I wouldn't recommend this though as it is what everyone else is doing, and it doesn't seem to work very well for entry level.
That’s all there is to it. It's a numbers game, and you need a bit of luck, but because there are so many jobs it works well. I’ve been hired on the phone four times in this manner without a face-to-face interview. Sometimes they’ll request a resume, but that is usually just a formality. The key is to call the right person at the right time and have the ability to be present at the job site within 72 hours. In my experience this cold-calling plan usually works within a couple hours, but it could take up to two weeks.
What You Should Seek
When you’re looking for an entry level job most of the hiring is done on the spot after a three question phone interview. As a result you're ability to tell if a job will provide you with fulfillment or make you lose your mind is limited. But there are a few things you should inquire about before you accept a job.
- Is it a camp job?
You want a camp job. That way you do not have to pay for accommodation and food while working, which makes this whole enterprise profitable. Some companies will expect you to live in Fort McMurray or some town and make your own onerous rent payments. If you are very lucky you could be offered LOA (Live Out Allowance), a generous daily stipend to cover these costs. LOA functions as a second tax-free income that can run up to tens of thousands of dollars a year. But LOA is rare, especially at the entry level.
- What is the shift?
14 days on, 7 days off is the most common, but there’s a wide range—from 7 and 7 to 10 and 4 and even 24 and 4. You will probably want a shift that keeps you busy (7 and 7 is too little work) but is not so long you begin to question your sanity (24 and 4). 14 and 7 is the best in my opinion.
- Do they pay for flights?
When you go on your days off some companies will pay to fly you anywhere in Canada. Some will fly you only as far as Edmonton or Calgary. Some won’t help you at all and you will have to make your own way out. If your employer will not fly you home you will need to arrange accommodation for your days off. For my days off I stayed in Edmonton with some very awesome friends and spent my weeks off exploring that city and various other cities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. If you do not have friends in the Prairies I recommend the hostels in Calgary or Edmonton where you are bound to make new friends, or Couchsurfing.
- What is the hourly rate?
The minimum you’ll want to accept is $18 an hour. Don’t forget that most jobs are 10 to 12 hours a day and a considerable portion of that is overtime, so even $18 adds up quickly. Realistically you can expect to make in the mid-$20s at first, and work your way up to the high $20s and low $30s.
- What is the overtime rate?
Alberta law requires overtime pay of time and a half after 8 hours a day or 44 hours a week, whichever is more (hint: its usually after 44). There are some fairly specific jobs where these rules do not apply. You can read more about it here. Overtime pay adds up to enormous sums, it is your bread and butter, so be careful you are not getting scammed on your overtime.
- Be aware of scams
There are some hiring scams you should be wary of, especially on sites like Craigslist and Kijiji. You should do your due diligence and get clear answers to the above questions before signing on to a job or divulging personal information. One man I spoke with dangled the possibility of a good job in front of me so that I would be willing to sign up to his cult/pyramid scheme.
Don’t Give Up
You must steel yourself and be prepared for it to take time. Failure can be discouraging and doubts may begin to swirl in your mind. Are there enough jobs? Am I qualified? Should I just go home?
This is the decisive moment. You must embark upon this endeavour with ironclad resolve, single-minded purpose. You must not give up. It can be done. With sufficient time and energy, and if you follow the advice here, you can do it. Take a temporary job in Edmonton if you have to. Given Edmonton's bouyant job market you can easily find a relatively well-paying construciton job while you look for camp work. You can also put it on your resume. When you do get hired on to a camp job you’re rewarded with a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
Yet you should not rest on your laurels once you've secured that job. Look at your first job as a learning experience, a launchpad onto a higher paying position with greater benefits and an easier workload. People at your new job will be able to give you job tips for other companies to look into. Keep cold calling. Don’t feel guilty about it. You will probably be advised again and again, like I was, that your company will willingly screw you if it gets the chance, (“It’s just business!”). You should have few scruples seeking out greener pastures while continuing to work. You might, like me, try a couple of new jobs before finding one that fits. Really it’s all part of the adventure and all valuable life experience.