With demand driving up oil prices worldwide, oil-sands producers are expanding capacity and stressing the labor force.
Michael Goodman/ENR
With demand driving up oil prices worldwide, oil-sands producers are expanding capacity and stressing the labor force.


Like other oil-sands producers, Calgary-based Suncor aims to hire locally first but will bring in qualified workers under the temporary foreign-worker program if Canadian labor is not available. “It is a very big labor requirement,” says Darcie Park, Suncor spokeswoman. “We really need to look at who is available and draw on all available workforce options.”

The major North American energy producer is already in negotiations with Edmonton-based PCL Constructors for a number of different trades. Attracting skilled craftspeople to remote locations is inherently challenging and the ability to retain them critical.

“We want to make sure Suncor is an employer and a worksite of choice,” Park says. Retention must encompass everything from financial compensation to the quality of food served and camp accommodations, trying to make it as “homey as we can,” she says. Perks include in-room TVs and Internet service, plus recreational facilities. There’s even an indoor hockey arena for workers.

Outsourcing some of the prefabrication work to such places as the U.S. helps ease some labor strain. In addition, there is 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 Edmonton-based Alberta Building Trades Council.

Longterm, producers are working with government and educational institutions to increase the pool of workers by expanding apprenticeship programs. Calgary-based Shell Canada employs approximately 2,500 skilled workers at its original Jackpine Mine construction site. Shell is planning a consecutive expansion process to maintain the workers, says Janet Annesley, Shell’s communications manager. “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, also works closely with local contractors to create job opportunities and supports local programs to help youth reach their full potential, says Alan Iwasaki, vice president of human resources. Its Junior Operators apprenticeship program at Surmont provides on-the-job training to people working toward Class 3 and Class 4 steam apprenticeship qualification.

Jason Foster, director of policy analysis for Alberta Federation of Labor (AFL), says employers adopting long-term solutions such as apprenticeship programs should be commended. AFL has long criticized the foreign-temporary-worker program, claiming it exploits vulnerable workers and results 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, disagrees that 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,” he says.


efore Suncor Energy Inc. announced a $20.6-billion expansion to its oil-sands project in northern Alberta, it had already started scoping out its future construction labor force. Predicting a peak need of 7,800 workers in 2009-10, Suncor had to start looking early because jobs far outnumber qualified workers in Alberta. The company has experienced labor shortages, resulting in the use of foreign workers. PCL used upward of 200 such workers on the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Horizons project. Craft-workers from the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa and the U.K. remain, and PCL is bringing carpenters in from the U.S. to alleviate labor shortages on its Shell Canada downstream project.