Mike Savoie's new room comes with a 20-inch flat-screen TV, double bed, high-speed Internet access and daily maid service. Prime rib is on the Thursday dinner menu. The bar opens at 6 p.m., and if that doesn't relax him, there's a yoga class at 7. The cost to the 38-year-old heavy-equipment operator of what he calls his "five star" accommodations? None.
Up here, in the white-hot center of the Canadian economy, riches are being pulled out of the yawning black pits of the Alberta oil sands like cash from an ATM. The Canadian dollar, propelled by oil hovering around $90 a barrel, has surged more than 60% to virtual parity with the U.S. dollar in the past five years. Now, the biggest hurdle oil companies have is finding enough skilled workers to operate the shovels.
That's why Mr. Savoie, who moved here from New Brunswick last month, is enjoying his luxurious new digs. As Canada's unemployment rate hovers at a 33-year-low of 6% -- and Alberta's at 3% -- oil companies are in a fierce bidding war for labor. Salaries have gone through the roof. Inexperienced truck drivers can make C$100,000 a year. [That's USD 99,000! Screw this PhD shtick I'm on; I now want to be a truck driver in Alberta.] Experienced welders can make C$200,000 a year. Now companies are trying to lure employees by reversing what has traditionally been the worst part of working in a remote oil field: grim lodgings, bad food and nothing to do after work.
Last month, Shell Canada, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, formally opened Albian Village, Mr. Savoie's home and the centerpiece of a $12 billion project that includes housing for 2,500 employees. Each worker will have a private room with a phone and satellite TV and access to a sprawling recreation center with a bar, movie theaters, an indoor basketball court, running track and ice-hockey rink. To organize classes, sports leagues and fitness regimens, Shell hired five recreational directors. The kitchen allots three pounds of steak per week per worker. On the menu one recent Friday: lamb chops, a seafood medley, steamed asparagus and apricot turnovers.
"We're hoping that these guys will go home to Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and tell their friends that Shell is where they should come if they want to work in the oil sands," says Shell spokeswoman Janet Annesley, noting the millions of dollars at stake when labor shortages cause delays.
Mr. Savoie, who is single and recently bought a C$40,000 Ford Mustang, said he will earn more than C$100,000 this year, up from C$60,000 last year. He is full of praise for the big oil companies that are treating him like one of the new princes of Alberta. "There's a lot to do," he says. "And the pay is great."
He acknowledges the oil sands -- spread across an area the size of Florida, and with a current temperature of about 1 degree Fahrenheit -- are still considered a hardship post, especially for people with families far away. The landscape up here is marked by gaping holes in the earth, miles-long pools of dead water and a stench of petroleum that the workers grimly call "the smell of money." With most workers planning to work for a few years, make big money and go home, Fort McMurray -- in the center of the oil sands -- has the look and feel of a boomtown. The population has doubled to 65,000 in 10 years. The price of a single-family house jumped C$150,000 in the past year to C$625,000. In seven years, home prices have tripled. The roads and sewers can barely keep up.
As the cost of living skyrockets, service workers are also in short supply and they have a hard time paying their rent. Frank Saraka, who runs the Canadian Tire department store here, says he would like to hire an additional 35 employees but can't find them. In the meantime, he has called the police repeatedly to throw out customers angry at the slow service. Signs in many establishments around town -- including the hospital emergency room -- warn customers that "abuse of employees will not be tolerated..."
With an estimated $100 billion in new projects currently being planned, new mines are being situated farther away from Fort McMurray. Some are inaccessible by road. As a result, work camps have become increasingly important -- especially when shifts can run 12 hours a day, for six weeks, followed by a couple of weeks off. Northern work camps have historically been rough, austere places. Men slept six to a room with too much noise bouncing off too-thin walls. The food, while abundant, was cheap and heavy. Bathrooms were little more than port-a-potties. "Prison with a paycheck," is how one veteran described it.
"I remember the meat used to be rainbow colored," says Dave Drummond, president of the Fort McMurray chapter of the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada. With the Alberta Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry now making trips to Asia and Europe to recruit workers and with companies pitching jobs on marketing roadshows across Canada, conditions are getting better every year. In 1999, when Suncor Energy Inc. opened its Millennium Lodge, 49 workers shared a washroom. The next year they opened up the Borealis Lodge nearby with two workers to a bathroom. Now the Millennium Lodge is undergoing renovations and the bathrooms are being upgraded along with the lighting, beds and mattresses.
Workers have a choice of 17 types of sandwiches for their bagged lunches to eat during their shifts. In their time off, they can play in a 20-team baseball league. Housekeepers make the beds every morning and change sheets on Mondays. In 2005, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., as part of its $7 billion Horizons oil-sands project, built the first of three, three-story dormitories at a cost of $30 million each, near the Suncor project north of Fort McMurray. The workers have access to an ice-hockey rink and a training center for students who left college early to work as apprentices. Instead of subjecting its employees to a six-hour bus ride to Edmonton once every 10 days for a four-day respite, Canadian Natural has a Boeing 737 to shuttle workers off site.
Near Albian Village, Shell built an airstrip that is among the largest private runways in northern Canada. Beyond the free flights and the Tim Hortons coffee shop, workers can request food from the kitchen for specific dietary needs or religious food laws.
♠ Posted by Emmanuel in Energy at 12/07/2007 06:16:00 AM