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A construction site at Suncor’s Fort Hills mining operations near Fort McMurray, September 17, 2014.Todd Korol/Reuters

The good news in the oil sands is Suncor Energy Inc. is hiring for its Fort Hills bitumen mine, an hour's drive north of Fort McMurray. The bad news: Suncor doesn't want Fort McMurray workers.

At a time when Western Canada's energy sector is rife with layoffs, Suncor wants to hire 1,700 people for its operations at Fort Hills. But members of the community closest to the oil sands are angry that Suncor is largely bypassing local talent as it fires up activity at its newest mine. The oil giant is hiring Fort Hills employees from other Western Canadian cities, such as Edmonton, Calgary, Kelowna and Vancouver, to work on a fly-in/fly-out basis.

Suncor says it does not want to hire mining operation workers from Fort McMurray because the sometimes treacherous 90-kilometre drive from town is not practical or safe on a daily basis. The company says it wants local talent working at its much closer main oil sands site – known as its base plant – about 25 kilometres north of town.

But that doesn't sit well with Fort McMurray residents who have been thrown out of work.

"There are a vast number of people in this community without jobs," said Mark McGroggan, 45, who was laid off as a safety consultant in the summer.

"There are numerous people that are qualified here and I don't really understand how it's more favourable for them [Suncor] to fly people in and out."

As late as the summer of 2014, Fort McMurray was still a boom town. The community was constantly short of workers, and was famous for its high rents and house prices that rivalled those in Vancouver's most desirable neighbourhoods.

But with the collapse in the price of oil and the drive to cut costs, Fort McMurray is a changed place. The residential vacancy rate for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is greater than 22 per cent. The unemployment rate is hovering around the 8-per-cent mark and would be higher except many former residents have moved "back home."

Real estate agent Lisa Hartigan, Mr. McGroggan's partner, said Fort McMurray's house prices have dropped by about 20 per cent. Many of those who have been thrown out of work are being forced to sell their homes and move away, she said.

Municipal Councillor Colleen Tatum is making an issue out of Suncor's policy, and after an initial Facebook posting, she said she has been contacted by people who have attended Suncor job fairs in other cities. When they present an application with a Fort McMurray address, "they are told not to waste their time, they will not be considered for the job," she said in an e-mail.

Ms. Tatum said Fort McMurray has an international airport and could be used as a transportation hub. "This is very upsetting to me and our residents," she said. "Suncor has been a great community supporter, so I am hopeful that they can resolve this issue as soon as possible."

Fort Hills is a joint venture between Suncor, Total SA and Teck Resources Ltd., but Suncor owns a controlling share and is the bitumen mine operator. The project is scheduled to produce its first oil in early 2017.

Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said Fort Hills is the "northernmost oil sands development" on the road north of Fort McMurray, and was designed as a camp-based fly-in/fly-out operation, where employees work a number of days and then return home for their days off. It was an employment strategy designed about a year ago, when the issue of labour shortages was still very real.

"We realize that times are different this year," Ms. Seetal said in an interview, adding that those hired from Fort McMurray for Fort Hills will be considered on a "case-by-case basis, but our preference would be to place them at our base plant operations first."

As a result of the community's concern over the hiring strategy, she said Suncor is now looking to help host an employment fair before the end of the year. "The goal of that fair would be to ensure we're not missing any qualified candidates from the region who may be unemployed."

Ms. Seetal noted Suncor employs 6,000 people from the region.

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