Sept/Oct 2007

Recruitment in the oil sands industry

By H. E. Robinson

Journeymen welders with an assembled clam bucket for a hydraulic shovel | Photo courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Natural resource industries in Canada rely on a qualified and skilled workforce. These industries are growing and, as a result, they continuously seek capable people for jobs across the country. In order to contend with an increasingly competitive market, companies must develop effective recruitment strategies.

Last year, Syncrude Canada Ltd., an Alberta-based company that currently supplies 15 per cent of the nation’s petroleum requirements, hired 750 new people to join their workforce of about 4,500. In response to the job openings, they received 45,000 applications. This year, they hope to hire as many as 1,000 new employees.

“Like everyone else in Canada’s resource industry, the recruitment of skilled workers has become more challenging in recent years,” said Alain Moore, a public affairs advisor for Syncrude.

”But we have been successful in finding high-quality people coast to coast. With such a large response to our job openings, we have obviously done a good job at establishing ourselves as an employer of choice and attracted a lot of attention. Our recruitment approach is very strategic and it plays a key role in our business.”

Recruitment has significantly increased in the past few years. One of the reasons for this increasing demand is because oil sands operations are expanding, which requires more people to run the facilities. Since the first oil sands project in 1967, the output of marketable oil sands production has increased to 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2006. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (a 2005 study), production could reach up to 3.6 million bpd by 2020. Based on this projection, the global oil sands industry would create approximately 6.6 million years of employment (both direct and indirect) between the years 2000 and 2020. As much as 56 per cent of this employment would be in Alberta.

An added challenge is an increasingly competitive job market combined with demographic realities. There is a large contingent of people currently working in the oil sands industry that will be retiring over the next few years. Moore explained, “This industry had a massive hiring phase back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These people are getting ready to retire now, after a 25 to 30 year career. To manage replacing a retiring workforce, we actively recruit new employees and provide opportunities where they can be mentored, to gain some of the knowledge people have learned from experience over the years.”

Syncrude addresses these challenges by using a specific recruitment approach in order to attract people to the oil sands industry. One of these ways is that the company hires within the mining industry. These employees come from all across Canada with many years of experience. There are differences between operations in the oil sands industry and other natural resource industries. However, Moore said this works to everyone’s advantage. “It is a two-way street, where people experienced in other types of mining are able to share their experience with our existing workforce, and vice versa.”

The company also works very hard to build the capacity for their operations by supporting local employment. Preference is given to qualified applicants who live in the Wood Buffalo Municipality and approximately two out of three of the people hired are local residents. In order to maintain this level of community investment, Syncrude concentrates efforts to help local residents gain the skills they need for a fruitful career in the oil sands.

“It starts with finishing high school, then entering a trade, or post-secondary training,” said Moore. “The oil sands is a high-tech industry so we need very highly skilled people. If people are looking for opportunities in the oil sands, they need to receive training, which could involve attending university to become an engineer, doing a business degree to gain financial or accounting skills, or learning a trade.” He emphasized “getting a trade is a very valuable skill anywhere in Canada, especially in the oil sands industry. Trades people are very marketable in Alberta.”

Another recruitment approach happens in the classroom. Representatives from the company go to schools to inform students of the various opportunities available in the oil sands industry. A number of Grade 9 students are able to tour the facilities to see what is involved; there is also a program that allows employees to take their sons or daughters through the site.

“This allows [young people] to see some of their career options,” said Moore. “They might have a good idea of traditional job opportunities such as becoming a welder, mechanic, or electrician, but we enjoy showing them the tremendous range of career paths that we offer.”

Syncrude is also the only oil sands company accredited at the Gold Level for the Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) Program. This recognizes the company’s commitment to “increasing aboriginal employment, assisting business development, building individual capacity, and enhancing community relations,” as outlined by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. Currently, aboriginal people compose about nine per cent of the Syncrude workforce.

Syncrude collaborates with government agencies and educational institutions to offer training programs specifically designed to be effective and lead to employment. The Aboriginal Development Program focuses on key areas such as encouraging corporate leadership, employment, business development, education and training, community development, and the environment.

Academic scholarships are also available for aboriginal students interested in pursuing specific career goals. In addition, Syncrude produces an ‘aboriginal review’ each year. This update informs stakeholders about the company’s work with aboriginal relations and provides an overview of yearly performance in the commitment areas outlined in the Aboriginal Development Plan.

Recruiting and maintaining a well-trained and productive workforce is essential in the resource industry, and companies such as Syncrude recognize this importance. As stated in their vision and values, “We are in a race with other new sources of energy and our performance over the next three to five years is going to be critical for our long-term success. Syncrude employees have demonstrated ‘heart’ many times in the past, and we are going to rely on this continued dedication to ensure our future success.”

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