When someone told me six months ago about the great summer they had working in the oil sands of northern Alberta, I was confused. After all, who would want to spend a vacation in some town six hours north of Edmonton? However, after having spent the summer in Fort McMurray, I found myself missing the town and the people I met there.
As a first-year mining engineering student at McGill University, I was offered a co-op position this past summer with Suncor Energy as a heavy equipment operator. While the immense scale of everything in the mine took some getting used to, the hardest thing to cope with was the schedule. We worked three 12-hour day shifts, followed by three 12-hour night shifts, followed by six days off. And I used think that my university schedule was gruelling! The 24-hour “short change” that separated the day and night shifts was quite useful, either for getting some much-needed sleep or visiting one of the town’s famous landmarks (I’m sure The Oil Can Tavern is familiar to some).
This being only my first year of involvement with the mining industry, I feel that there is very little I can say authoritatively about mining or engineering. Instead, I hope I can share with you something that not many people in this industry have — a newcomer’s perspective.
If there is one thing I would like to stress in this article, it is the need for more companies to consider hiring first-year students as operators. This not only gives companies the first pick of the top students, but it also helps them in the long run when the students return to them for a job upon graduation and already have valuable experience at their mines.
It is well-known that the mining and energy sectors have an aging workforce and that there will be a shortage of trained workers in the near future. The opportunities and salaries that are offered to mining engineering graduates are unmatched in any other discipline. Yet, mining engineering remains one of the programs with the lowest enrolments across the country. So, where might the problem lie?
I believe that one of the major reasons students choose another industry is because of the remote locations of many mining-related jobs. Few people entering university are interested in moving to small towns or to camps. Yet, after spending a few months at one such location, I realize how wrong my thinking about this was. I was completely surprised by the level of culture in Fort McMurray and the diverse group of people found there. It really is a modern-day gold rush town, with people coming and going from all over the world.
New apartment buildings and houses appear to go up every day. Many arrive without knowing anyone else, which makes it easy for strangers to get along, as most people around are strangers. With much of the population working in shifts, there are interesting activities going on every night of the week. I think if more students had the chance to spend time in a mining town, they would reconsider a career in this industry.
My experience working in the oil sands was also very rewarding on an educational level. As Chris Kissel, a summer student with Syncrude, put it, “Other students and mining companies in general tend to underestimate the mining experience that can be gained by working as an operator. Hands-on production experience provides an excellent introduction to the industry.” Rarely do students get the chance to work in the mine and truly see how things are done. I believe this is something that will be very useful for me if I get to work for Suncor as an engineer in the future.
I am very thankful to Suncor for giving me this great opportunity and this great summer experience. As for Fort McMurray, I sincerely hope to go back one day. I think Samantha Larkin, another summer student at Syncrude, who also happens to have grown up here, describes it better than I ever could: “Growing up here let me get to the heart of this town — the part no one really gets to see, the best part. This town is a beautiful, growing community with tons to do, if you’re only willing to look for it. It truly is what you make of it. It’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to experience something completely different from the norm. They might one day be proud to call it home, like I do.”
Ryan Veitch is a first-year mining engineering student at McGill University. He hopes to complete an arts degree, in addition to mining engineering. He enjoys writing and works part time as a sports journalist.