Before Suncor Energy announced a $20.6-billion expansion to its oilsands project in northern Alberta, it had already started scoping out its future construction labor force.

Predicting a peak need of 7,800 workers in 2009/2010, Suncor, Fort McMurray, Alberta, had to start looking early because in Alberta, jobs far outnumber qualified workers.

Many companies aim to hire locally first. Failing that, they expand searches regionally, then nationally. If still unsuccessful, some look outside Canada to bring in qualified workers under the temporary foreign worker program.  

Suncor is no different. "It is a very big labor requirement," says Darcie Park, Suncor spokeswoman. "It comes down to really careful detailed planning. We really need to look at who is available, and draw on all available work force options."

The major North American energy producer is already in negotiations with Edmonton, Alberta-based PCL Constructors for a number of different tradespeople.

Park acknowledges that attracting skilled craftsmen is inherently challenging, and the ability to retain them critical. "We want to make sure Suncor is an employer and a worksite of choice," she says, adding that retention has to be encompassing. That's everything from lucrative financial compensation to the quality of food served to the actual camp accommodations, and trying to make it as "homey as we can." Perks include in-room TVs and Internet service, plus recreational facilities. There's even an indoor hockey arena for workers. Also, Suncor flies employees out to its remote site when their shift rotation starts to ease the commute at company expense.

Outsourcing some of the prefabrication work to such places as the U.S. helps ease some labor strain. In addition, there is an unofficial co-operation among oilsands' construction sites to stagger work so, for example, multiple sites are not looking for carpenters at the same time.

"There's a common work practice to deal with that...the oil and gas industry does it as a whole," says Ron Harry, executive director of the Edmonton-based Alberta Building Trades Council. "It's not always going to work perfectly, but they do try to mitigate that pressure by that informal arrangement."

Long-term, Suncor is working with government and educational institutions to increase the pool of workers by, for example, expanding apprenticeship programs. This is similar to Shell Canada's long-term strategy for its Jackpine Mine site and expansion. Currently, Calgary, Alberta-based Shell employs approximately 2,500 skilled workers at its original Jackpine construction site. Shell plans a consecutive expansion process to maintain the workers, says Janet Annesley, Shell's communications manager. "Overall our strategy is twofold. We are hiring many of the best...experienced people to come work with us. We're also supporting the training and development of the next generation of skilled workers."

ConocoPhillips Canada, Calgary, is another integrated energy company looking to youth for its future workforce. It works closely with local contractors to create opportunities for them and supports programs at the local level to help youth reach their full potential, says Alan Iwasaki, vice president of human resources. Also, its Junior Operators apprenticeship program at Surmont provides on-the-job training to people working towards their Class 3 and 4 steam apprenticeship qualification.

Jason Foster, director of policy analysis, Alberta Federation of Labor (AFL), says employers adopting long-term solutions such as apprenticeship programs should be commended.

"We encourage employers to be looking at trying to create long-term labor market solutions rather than a quick fix." AFL has long criticized the foreign temporary worker program, the target of Foster’s remark, claiming it exploits vulnerable workers resulting in a disposable workforce. A recent advocate's report called it an "unqualified disaster."

"Because of how the program has been ramped up so quickly by the two levels of government, it's given employers a very easy out from meeting their labor market needs within Canada," says Foster. "This is a quick fix for employers; it's easier, it's cheaper, so they do it."

Peter Stalenhoef, PCL's president and chief operating officer of heavy industrial, disagreed these workers are being exploited, at least with PCL, because they're being paid the same wage as everyone else, and being given an opportunity for employment. "They're being treated very well."

The company has experienced labor shortages, resulting in the use of foreign workers. PCL used upwards of 200 such workers on the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Horizons project. Craftworkers remain from the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, and the U.K., and PCL is bringing carpenters in from the U.S. to alleviate labor shortages on its Shell Canada downstream project.