They are the part of the men and women of Alberta’s oil sands. But in many ways, they are Canada’s work force, pulled from across the country.
For just a taste of how labour moves to the oil sands, consider this: In any week, Imperial Oil, for the construction of its $10.9-billion Kearl mine, sends charter flights to St. John’s and Deer Lake, Nfld., Moncton, Halifax, Sydney, Montreal, Hamilton, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Fort Chipewyan, Alta., Calgary, Edmonton, Kamloops, Kelowna and Vancouver. Each of those charters shuttles people directly to a privately-run airstrip in the oil sands.
The company also pays for numerous other workers, who aren’t near enough any of those locations, to fly commercial to Edmonton, where they can catch a charter north.
And that’s just one company.
For workers, it’s a whirlwind of flights. But it’s a living – and a lucrative one. Here are some of their stories.
Gerry Harrison: A steamfitter who works in safety training, he lives on a sheep farm in Harvey Station, N.B. To get to work at Kearl, he drives to Fredericton, flies to Edmonton via Toronto, then catches a plane to site. It’s a long day: His first flight leaves at 3:30 a.m. by Alberta’s clock, and he doesn’t get to his room until 9 p.m. The way back is worse, with a red-eye thrown in and a time zone working against him. But the schedules have gotten better over the years: With his first oil sands job, in 2005, he worked in Alberta for three months before heading home. His next job was six weeks in, two out. Then 20 days on and eight off. Now it’s 14 and seven. The hours are friendlier, but for a 61-year-old, it’s a big commitment. “It’s a little hard with the travelling. It gets a little taxing at times,” he says. Still, asked if he likes the fly-in, fly-out system, he says: “Oh my Lord, yes. ... A man’s gotta do what he has to do to provide for his family.”
Gerry Barry: An electrician who lives in Corner Brook, Nfld. Currently between oil sands jobs, taking time to fly to St. Lucia for his 25th wedding anniversary. When he gets back, he will head west – with his 20-year-old son, who is taking his first job in the oil sands as a second-year apprentice electrician. In his previous job, with Suncor, he received $1,100 to book his own flights to Edmonton, plus $125 for driving to the airport in Newfoundland. At home, Mr. Barry could expect $24 an hour. In Alberta, it’s about $42. Plus, in a 70-hour week, 30 hours are time-and-a-half overtime. And the work, with its solid week off, has brought unexpected domestic benefits. “I worked sales before, and had an office in the house. Believe it or not, I have more family time now.”
Ryan Whitman: Lives in Kelowna, B.C. A facilities operator at a Devon oil sands site, Mr. Whitman flies himself to Calgary, then catches a private plane north. He moved to Kelowna from Calgary last September – a perk of being able to air-commute is you can choose where you live. “The weather is way better than Calgary,” he says. “This is a possibility with the fly-in, fly-out job.” Plus, the seven straight days off are a perfect time for mini-vacations, like riding a motorcycle around B.C. The schedule, conversely, is good for days on, too: “Being able to be at work is kind of nice because then you can just focus on work.”