Vetting Employers In Alberta’s Oilsands Job Market

I've been working in the oilsands in and around Fort McMurray for the past nine years doing HVAC/R, in that time I've been hired by 7 different contractors from small mom and pop shops with eight employees doing sitewide maintenance and service at Meg Energy, to big jobs doing sitewide commissioning with Black & McDonald at Surmont 2.

Changing jobs is always a process – sometimes a great opportunity comes to you, but other times you need to be proactive and set up good filters and processes to identify the type of company and position you want to work in.

The main details I look for

The main things I look for in a potential employer are:

  • the wage
  • the shift
  • the overtime
  • the on call
  • if there is a night shift and how much extra per hour to expect and how often you need to do it
  • the camp
  • and the travel to and from site.

On Travel: Some things to consider

You have to find a travel rhythm that fits your lifestyle. Some companies fly you right to site all you need to do is get to the airport. Some companies need you to drive to site and it’s a game of guesswork whether they will pay you to travel or not. I personally enjoy a nice 4–5-hour road trip – unless it’s a blizzard out. Whiteout conditions can make it dangerous, slow going to get to the work site, so be aware that it will likely happen sometimes.

Camp living

With camp life, you will need to ask if you will get your own bathroom, and how you get to site from camp.

A lot of camps have shared bathrooms. During COVID, they got rid of bathroom sharing but now that the pandemic is petering out, I'm sure bathroom sharing or "Jack & Jill," as they are called, will come back soon.

Negotiating wages, overtime & benefits

If you choose to negotiate their offering wage, I would never negotiate more than 10% than what they are offering. They may settle on an extra 5% or tell you the wage is non-negotiable, but it can be worth trying. Keep in mind, no matter how talented you are, you could be considered a headache and not get the job if you negotiate more than 10% of the posted wage. 9 times out of 10 if the wage is close to the average for the area, I will just settle with what they are offering.

The averaged shift most companies offer nowadays are 7/7 or 14/14, 12-hour days and are almost always considered a condensed work week so will all be at straight time, so clarify with the employer what overtime looks like and how often you are needed to work extra days, or if you are able to work extra if you need it.

If you can find a shift where you're at work longer such as a 14/7, 21/7 or a 10/4, those are big money shifts but be prepared to sacrifice the home time for that money. On call can be non-existent (which are a personal favorite of mine), while others will pay you a certain number of hours to be on call and others will give you a minimum charge out time to take a call after hours.

Typically, the benefits packages are non-negotiable so you pretty much have to settle with what they give you. There are tons of companies hiring HVAC/R right now so if this if your field, you do have quite a few options to look through and find the one that fits your lifestyle and needs best.

Your resume and getting the job

Getting hired on with these companies is (mostly) a relatively easy process. The first job I had, I pulled from a job board. I sent them my resume and had a phone interview within a day; nowadays due to COVID, the interview process has changed and many employers are using Microsoft Teams or FaceTime.

HVAC/R, in particular, is a very blue-collar trade. I've never had to wear anything fancy for an interview, hats, jeans, t-shirt or hoodie is usually perfectly acceptable. It might even be considered odd if you dressed up too much! Just be yourself, treat an interviewer as a buddy you haven't seen in a long time, and know that HVAC employers are looking for mainly troubleshooting experience on your resume.

Being at an employer for longer than a year is also a very positive mark on the resume. I like to list some of the bigger equipment I've worked on in the pasts such as chillers, boilers, MUAs, grocery racks, and things like that. List the BTU’s or cooling capacity for bonus points, name, relevant controls associated with the unit, as well as any building automation systems you are familiar with. Your resume should only list the equipment you are confident and comfortable with fixing. Your resume should also list all your safety tickets; the more tickets you have the less the employer has to pay to get you trained, so it looks good if you’ve already got CSTS 09, WHMIS, TDG, H2S alive, EWP, fall arrest, confined space entry, BSO, or OSSA, trade tickets and your driver's license.

Your first shift & Passing probation

When you are hired, your first shift is undoubtedly a test to see if your resume was just twisting the truth, or if you do in fact know what you are doing. Your first shift is also a test to see how you fit in with the crew.

When hired, you will usually have a 3-month probation period. At this time it is crucial not to ruffle anyone's feathers. Doing as much work as they will give you with a smile on your face no matter how little work your coworkers do will put you in a great position to keep that job. The term "fit in or f**k off" is, for better or worse, very real when it comes to keeping a job in the oilsands. In fact, I've met awful mechanics with great personalities who have been at their jobs far longer than their skills would seem to justify.

You put a lot of effort into vetting your employer, and now they're checking you out – be a chameleon and learn by watching. Your best bet is not to walk on the jobsite on day one and assume you know a better way of doing things. You may even create a safety risk if you start changing processes before you know why they exist.

In summary

Be teachable and listen carefully, and then do your job and make sure you do it well. Working in Alberta's oilsands is a fantastic way to build wealth, experience, and skills that will carry you far in life, wherever your future takes you.

If you put in the legwork upfront to ensure that your new employer will provide you the salary, benefits, and lifestyle balance that you are looking for, it's now time to be accountable and work on being the best you can be in your new environment.