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The Wall Street Journal: This Is the Life: Luxurious Digs On Frigid Oil Sands

Firms in Canada Pay Well,
And Steak Is on the Menu;
‘Smell of Money’ Beckons
December 5, 2007; Page A1

WOOD BUFFALO, Alberta — 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.
In Canada, oil companies are waging a bidding war for skilled workers. Shell Oil opened Albian Village, the centerpiece of a $12 billion project to house 2,500 employees.

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. 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.”

But almost everyone connected to the oil sands is making good money and that has attracted drugs and prostitution. Bookending the mayor’s office in the town center are Digger’s Strip Club and the Boomtown Casino. The phone book has 11 pages of escort services. Drugs are easy to find.

Alex Pitzel, manager of Herbal Essentials not far from Canadian Tire, estimates he sells about 50 flush kits meant to help workers clear their blood of illegal substances and 25 packages of synthetic urine every week to oil-sands workers worried about flunking random drug tests.
“A lot of them say their bosses tell them to come in and get a detox because they can’t afford to fire them,” Mr. Pitzel said.

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.

For Mr. Savoie, all that food raises some concerns. “I don’t want to put on too much weight while I’m up here,” he says. “I’m going to use the gym a lot.”

Write to Douglas Belkin at [email protected] and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

13 Comments on “The Wall Street Journal: This Is the Life: Luxurious Digs On Frigid Oil Sands”

  1. #1 david white
    on Feb 23rd, 2008 at 20:27

    i am a 25 year old structual steel worker with certs and exp. rigger. would like job in the oil sands. please contact me.

  2. #2 S MACLEOD
    on Feb 23rd, 2008 at 14:56

    The money may be excellent for some construction employee’s but the same treatment isn’t provided to the catering staff. We only get 8 hrs per day and have no transportation provided other than 150 per month added to our checks (if they remember). It costs me close to 800 total both ways per month in order to work there now which has drastically reduced my desire to remain at this camp. I’m willing to bet that those steak dinners will leave a lot to be desired in the near future as they will be losing all of the best cooks etc. due to their treatment of the catering staff.

  3. #3 Royal Dutch Shell
    on Feb 5th, 2008 at 17:15

    For Shell Job Applications please visit…

  4. #4 Steven A. Davis
    on Feb 5th, 2008 at 15:28

    I would like to learn more about employment in this location and am very interested. Please contact me in regards to employment/jobs. I am a US citizen, have a passport, no felonies (clean record), much experience in many fields of construction. My physical condition is very good. I have been cleared to work in Iraq for a private contractor and have passed all requirements and back-ground checks. I have been rescheduled to depart for in Iraq six times now and am becoming frustrated. I want to get to work! Please contact me.

    Steven Davis

  5. #5 Jesse James Gelormino
    on Jan 16th, 2008 at 17:54

    I am 27 years old and live in Montana. I’ve experienced working on the pipe line in Alaska. I am currently operating logging equiptment and brush grinding machines. I have a CDL truck driver license. I am very interested in employment as soon as possible. Please contact me with more information. Thank you , Jesse Gelormino

  6. #6 Richard Rider
    on Jan 3rd, 2008 at 21:14

    I am 54 yr old currently living in the phillipines. I am an american from Minnesota. Through the years back ground has many years of combined equipment operator, truck driver. and farm worker experince. but most of my work was for cash money. I am looking for work inthe oilfield. I also have about 3 years experince as a roughneck on double scopeup oil rigs. can you help out.

  7. #7 Grant Hawkins
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 22:04

    I am a pipe-structural weldor,and CWI with 30 yrs of exp. in all phases of on,and of shore oilfield const. and maintainence. I am interested in work in the oil sands projects,as a rig weldor supervisor,or quality control.
    Any information you can provide would be appreciated.
    Thank you
    Grant Hawkins

  8. #8 Grant Hawkins
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 21:44

    I am a pipe,and structural weldor,and cwi with 30 yrs exp. in all phases of oilfield on and offshore const. I have more than 20 yrs. in alaska,and north slope. I am interested in employment as a rig weldor,or supervision in oil sands projects.

  9. #9 Royal Dutch Shell
    on Dec 8th, 2007 at 03:04

    For Shell Job Applications please visit…

  10. #10 jerome maraccini
    on Dec 7th, 2007 at 19:56

    need to know if i can apply online for cdl job.experienced and ready to ma
    the move.msg me asap.currently on the road.this msg is for the recruiters
    for the oil sands in alberta canada.also have some welding background.5yr
    s otr experience with great mvr report and references

  11. #11 Rudy Valles
    on Dec 7th, 2007 at 11:01

    How do I apply for truck driver positions ? Thank You

  12. #12 Joseph Miklicek
    on Dec 7th, 2007 at 07:51

    My son Thomas-30-year-old heavy equipment operator-6 years expirience is very interested aboat this job.Pls. contact us.Thank you and have nice day. Thomas Miklicek

  13. #13 jerry coffman
    on Dec 6th, 2007 at 10:05

    i am a certified pipe welder i have done a five year apprentiship in local 208 and ive been welding pipe for the last fifteen years i am very interested in lerning more about working for you pepole so please contact me thank you and have a nice day

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