Boom, Bust, Transition
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Boom, Bust, Transition

Work in the oil industry is notoriously cyclical. It’s tough on members and their families, but some have found steady jobs maintaining plants they once helped build

By Lisa Helder, Associate Editor

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT in the oilsands of northern Alberta, you will find Garry Vecchio and his fellow Local 63 members hard at work.

“In the summer, working the night shift, there’s no better job,” says Garry. “You’ve got the northern lights almost every night. There’s no dust. It’s cool. There are no mosquitoes or bugs. In the summer, it’s a great gig, but you pay for it in winter.”

Garry is a side boom operator from BC who worked in northern BC before coming to Alberta in 2010 during the oilsands construction boom. He has worked 40-plus years of afternoon and night shifts, first as a baker in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then as a grocer in the ‘90s, and then as an equipment operator in the 2000s.

While his preference working the night shift hasn’t changed, work in the oilsands has undergone a seismic shift. When Garry first started working in northern Alberta back in 2010, the price of oil was rising rapidly after a brief recession. Construction was booming and there was big money to be had.

“It was the wild west back when I started,” says Garry, who serves his fellow members as a steward.

But beginning in 2015, as the price of oil continued to drop from mid-2014 levels, new construction ground almost to a halt—with no megaprojects on the books for the foreseeable future. The story of construction in the oilsands is not simply one of boom and bust, but of transition. Of construction workers who built not only plants, but also long term jobs for themselves and others who maintain these sprawling facilities.

FOR WORKERS LIKE GARRY, there is still work to be had in the oilsands—no longer at the frenzied pace of construction, but at the steady hum of plant maintenance. Processing bitumen is notoriously hard on equipment. As soon as a plant comes online, the maintenance begins.

At the Kearl Oil Sands Project, which processes 220,000 barrels of bitumen per day, almost 1,000 CLAC members employed by AECOM Maintenance Contractors Ltd. are in the middle of a five-year maintenance contract. This massive site, comprising two plants constructed in two phases beginning in 2009, was built mainly by CLAC members. So who better to maintain it than those who built it and other plants in the region?

Jason Hillcoat, a journeyman electrician employed by AECOM, Local 63 member, and steward at Kearl, prefers the pace of maintenance to construction.

“I worked construction for three-and-a-half years before switching to maintenance two-and-a-half years ago,” says Jason. “In construction, you’re usually working 21 days on, 7 off, or 14 on and 7 off. In maintenance, it’s 10 on and 10 off, 7 and 7, or 14 and 14. I’m on a 10 and 10 schedule.

“I enjoyed construction when I didn’t have a family. I was able to go and make the money, and not worry about being at home.”

Now, with a wife and children back home in Montreal, Jason’s priorities have shifted.

“When you’re only working half the year, it is a lot easier to maintain your relationship with your family than it is when you’re away from your home for three-quarters of the year,” he says.

It’s also more stable.

“We made more money in construction because of all the overtime,” says Garry. “But then when the job runs out, you could be out of work for a month or two. The guys who are on maintenance want to work in maintenance because it’s a steady paycheque. You don’t have to chase work all the time.”

Because the work is more specialized and site specific than new construction, many workers in the maintenance industry receive a high level of specialized training.

“I’m an electrician, so they give you site-specific training and more advanced training in the maintenance industry,” says Jason.

After all, the machines in the plant are all operational, unlike in new construction where they are installed but not running. Workers need to understand and be trained in proper lockout and tagout procedures and have their Red Seal or journeyperson tickets to perform much of the work.

In many ways, Jason also finds working maintenance more rewarding than construction.

“In maintenance, we shut the equipment down, perform our task, and then we test it to make sure it works,” he says. “In construction, we perform our task, but we never get to see if it works or not because we’re usually gone by the time the plant is commissioned.”

SO WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY or night shift look like in the maintenance world? Very similar to that of the new construction world.

It starts with a toolbox meeting, and then everyone gets their work package and heads to the area of the plant that they are working on. But members enjoy plenty of variation when it comes to full-scale shutdowns.

Usually, members working maintenance only shut down the piece of equipment that they are working on. But once per year, the whole plant is shut down, and extra workers are brought in. The entire plant is inspected and all deficiencies repaired. These shutdowns can be challenging for the long term workers on the project.

“As maintenance workers, we have a lot more training, whether it’s being able to do permits or proper lockout procedures,” says Jason. “When we bring people in shutdowns, they don’t have the chance to get that sort of training because there’s just no time. It puts a strain on some of the steady state workers because the people they have to work with can’t have access to a lot of the plant.”

Garry agrees. “Working on the pipeline is heavy, dangerous work, especially at night and in the wintertime when it’s -30, -40. You can’t bring in just anybody. All it takes is one guy in the wrong spot to cause an accident.”

For this reason, some companies are shying away from bringing in large crews of workers for a few weeks and instead prefer to crew up using as many of their current maintenance workers as possible by offering them the chance to earn some overtime—something that is almost nonexistent in the normal day-to-day pace of maintenance.

WHILE THOSE WORKING IN MAINTENANCE often enjoy it, the transition from construction work hasn’t been without its challenges.

Some, who long for the construction boom days when overtime, bonuses, and premiums provided incomes of almost $200,000 per year, have found it difficult to adjust to the new pay structure in which they work for 10 days on and 10 days off, but their pay is calculated over the full 20-day period—meaning no overtime.

As a steward, Garry has seen more disgruntled workers than in the past. He has found that many workers have moved on because it doesn’t make sense for them to travel as far as they do without the chance for overtime—especially now that in both construction and maintenance, most travel packages only provide transportation to the site from Calgary or Edmonton, rather than from across the country.

“For some of us, you can make as much or more money at home now than here, when you figure in your travel costs, wear and tear, and everything else,” says Garry. “I can still afford to come here, but just. I’m going to stick it out for 11 more months. Then I turn 60 and I’ll retire.”

Many of the workers who remain in maintenance do so because they have had enough of the boom-bust cycles of construction work. They’re tired of chasing construction jobs when there are few to be had. Some like it because they are from the area and the work is close to home. Others enjoy the less hectic pace of maintenance work.

“The people who want to be in maintenance are generally more family oriented,” says Jason. “They’re usually people with kids. They want to be able to balance their schedules and know when they will be home.”

For many in the maintenance world, even if the boom were to begin again, they would remain where they are. They’ve made the transition from the unsteady days of construction and now prefer the steady reliability of maintenance work.

“Whether the boom starts happening again and all construction starts ramping up again, I still believe that I’ll be staying in the maintenance field,” says Jason. “That’s where I see myself, both now and long term.”

Where Are the Jobs?

Construction and Maintenance Trends

BuildForce Canada—a national construction organization made up of representatives from owners, contractors, labour groups (including CLAC), industry associations, and governments—publishes a construction and maintenance forecast each year, which predicts the rate of investment and job growth in various construction sectors.

The latest report states that “after 20 years of unprecedented demand for construction services, the industry over the coming decade will enter a ‘new normal’ period characterized by more modest demand for new construction and rising demand for maintenance and renovations services. At the same time, with nearly one quarter of the industry’s workforce expected to retire during this period, labour markets in some parts of the country may experience increased tightness due to the departure of the industry’s older and most seasoned workers.”

1. What does this mean for Alberta’s oil and gas industry?

  • Decline in new construction and a rise in maintenance work
  • After oil prices declined in 2015, new projects were postponed or cancelled.
  • Demand for maintenance and upgrades has been growing in the past number of years and will continue to do so over the next 10 years.

2. Investment

  • Early 2000s – Maintenance accounted for 50 percent of investment in the oilsands.
  • 2018–2028 – Maintenance will account for 90 percent of investment.
  • Total annual investment at the peak (2014) – approximately 64 billion.*
  • Expected annual investment over the next decade – $38 billion (2018) rising to $50 billion (2027).*

*Investment numbers based on the 2007 CAD value

3. Jobs

  • Increased demand for maintenance will help offset the decline in new construction jobs.
  • Labour demand is expected to remain lower than at its peaks in 2008 and 2014.

4. Aging construction workers

  • Between 2018 and 2027, nearly 250,000 skilled tradespeople are expected to retire.
  • There aren’t enough apprentices to replace them.
  • Parents, educators, companies, and governments need to work together to increase the number of young people and nontraditional tradespeople to enter the trades.

Source: BuildForce Canada, Meeting Construction and Maintenance Workforce Challenges (December 2017)

We Want You!

Jayson Bueckert, CLAC regional director for Fort McMurray, talks about the transition from construction to maintenance work, how CLAC is working to secure this work for its members, and how members can get involved.

When did CLAC members get involved in maintenance?

Between the early 2000s and 2015, many Local 63 members enjoyed an almost steady pace of work in the construction of new plants, and were not involved in the maintenance of these plants once they came online. Starting in 2010, some CLAC signatories began to enter the maintenance world.

For years, we have talked about the fact that once these plants are all built, someone will have to maintain them. We’re at that point now. These plants are up and running, and they require quite a number of people to keep them going. So there’s a lot of opportunity for CLAC members in the maintenance side. We’re well-positioned with having so many members who have built these projects to be able to go in and now do large-scale maintenance turnarounds.

What is CLAC doing to secure this work for its members?

In addition to improving our employment and recruitment programs, we have increased the capacity of our CLAC Jobs Team. We’ve tasked them with building and managing a robust database of member profiles—members who are seeking employment opportunities with CLAC-signatory companies.

We are also making it easier for members to access employment services. You will soon be able to check in online, register for the referral program, and create a job profile via computer, tablet, or smartphone, 24/7. Create a concise profile and let the Jobs Team know you’re available for work. They’ll help match you with employers. CLAC has over 200 signatory contractors, so taking the time to create and update your job profile is definitely worth the effort.

What should members do if they want maintenance work?

Contact the Jobs Team and register for the referral program. Create and continually update your job profile—make sure your trade qualifications and tickets are current. We’re enhancing our online presence, so take at look at our jobs board when it’s available online and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We also advertise on Indeed and other public job boards. The key for the Jobs Team is knowing who’s available for work. Connect with them and stay in touch with them during your job search.

What are the challenges in the next few years?

We have more people employed in construction right now than what we foresee there will be work for in the future. That will gradually turn around, but it will take time. In the meantime, the way we can get through it is if CLAC-signatory companies can secure enough long term maintenance work. They’re also going to secure more of the short term shutdowns.

And the construction side should open up more down the road. There are going to be some projects in the next couple of years that will give our members opportunities to work on the construction side.

We’re in for a lull, but this industry has shown that it’s very resilient.

Dancing Spirits of the North

The northern lights have thrilled and terrified people for millennia. Each culture that saw these mystical dancing lights had a different tale to explain their presence.

Various First Nations peoples, as well as the Sami of northern Europe, believed they were the spirits of departed loved ones. Some First Nations peoples believed they were fires lit by the creator Nanabozho to remind his people that he was still thinking of them. The Chinese saw the lights as dragons fighting in the sky, while the Fins believed they were caused by a mystical fox swishing its tail. And the Norse believed they were a bridge leading fallen soldiers to their rest in Valhalla.

While we now know that the aurora borealis is caused by collisions between particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, when you look up into the night sky and see these dancing figures, you can’t help but feel a thrill at their beauty. You may even wonder if there is a playful fox swishing its tail up there after all.

Sources: theaurorazone.com, naturecanada.ca, offthemap.travel.com

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