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Oil sands tapping military veterans to fill jobs

Military veteran Heather Reid is now safety co-ordinator for Supreme Steel, a steel fabrication plant in Edmonton.

Ian Jackson/The Globe and Mail

When Heather Reid broke her ankle in a training exercise after seven years in the military, she suddenly found herself in an unfamiliar place: the job market.

But then she found Alberta's Prospect Human Services, a job agency tha t launched a program this year tailored to Canada's veterans. The program immediately caught the attention of the oil industry, which has been struggling with a critical labour shortage since the middle of the last decade.

Traditional labour pools, such as employees who commute from the country's east coast, are not deep enough to meet demand in an industry that needs to fill at least 9,500 jobs by 2015, and between 50,000 and 130,000 positions by 2020. And while the efforts of agencies like Prospect to reach injured and retired veterans from Canada and the United States will not solve the labour problem on their own, they serve as an example of the creative thinking that will be needed to address one of the oil sands' most urgent challenges.

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"Prospect can get you in the back door [with potential employers]," Ms. Reid said. "They have every type of resource to connect veterans with employers."

Ms. Reid, now a safety co-ordinator with Supreme Group, the largest privately owned steel fabricator in Canada, landed an interview without Prospect's connections, but the organization still helped her to prepare.

"If I hadn't gotten the Supreme job, I know they would have been able to place me."

Prospect, which serves over 10,000 people annually, works with between 500 and 700 companies, and about 20 industry associations. The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada paid Prospect little attention until the organization created its plan for veterans.

"When we introduced the military program, they were all over us," said Melanie Mitra, Prospect's chief executive officer. "There's been quite a lot of interest [from the energy sector] in figuring out how they can start working with us."

About 5,000 Canadian former military personnel move into the civilian work force each year.

Edmonton's military base hosts regular job fairs for its soldiers, and the Military Employment Transition Program, run by charity Canada Company, also works with Alberta companies to help veterans make the transition to civilian life.

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But the labour shortage is so severe that, last month, the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. (EECD), turned to a job board for veterans of the U.S. armed forces, saying Canadian markets for skilled labour are just about tapped out.

The agency's overall recruitment efforts include a job fair in Seattle next month, a website called, and the effort to reach U.S. veterans. VetJobs is the only online job board it's using. In doing so, EEDC has overlooked a similar jobs board for Canadian veterans.

Ted Daywalt, a retired American navy captain, runs the website and says jobs in Alberta are ideal for veterans.

"There's not a language barrier – or too much of a language barrier – and the values are very similar. Alberta's a very conservative area in Canada and veterans, by nature, are conservative," Mr. Daywalt said from his Atlanta-area office. "There are so many win-win-wins and plus-plus-pluses to this deal."

To be hired, Americans (veterans or not) would likely be brought in as temporary foreign workers, allowing them four years of work in Canada. To hire a temporary foreign worker, a company must have a Labour Market Opinion, or federal government approval, that they couldn't fill the job in Canada.

"We are looking at Canadian workers first, obviously," said Mike Wo, the EEDC's executive director of economic growth and development. "They're been quite successful, but the talent pools are starting to run dry."

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