Monday, 9 June 2014

Career Highlights and Myths Exposed in Fort McMurray – Part 1

Today's post is from Amy Roy Gratton, Experiential Learning Coordinator with CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.

One of my favourite things about being a career advisor is the chance to explore different careers first-hand. My role at CAPS is to coordinate programs that get students out of the classroom to experience careers themselves so it’s only fitting that I sometimes get out of my office to do the same!

Last month I was one of 24 people chosen to participate in the Oil Sands Careers Education Program hosted by Inside Education, an Alberta-based not-for-profit organization whose mission is to make first-hand environmental and natural resources education accessible to teachers so that they can bring real-life experiences to students in the classroom.
The tour was two-fold: To experience the life of a commuting employee and learn the technical terms and challenges within the oil sands industry. To experience the life of a commuter, we boarded a charter flight with North Cariboo Air from the Edmonton International Airport to Fort McMurray which took 1 hour and 10 minutes. In my past life as a Human Resources Recruiter for Western Canada I took over 500 commercial flights. I can’t begin to describe the ease of flying with a charter airline from a passenger perspective. There is very little waiting around – arrive, check-in, fly out! When you’re commuting weekly into Fort McMurray I can see why the expense of charter flights is justified. Once up in the air it was a thrill for me to see the changing landscape from Edmonton’s farming quadrants to northern Alberta’s forest packed landscape.

When we arrived in Fort McMurray we were picked up and transported by Diversified Transportation, a company that employs 3,500 employees and has been transporting employees from their homes or camps to worksites throughout Fort McMurray since 1967. I held my breath as the bus turned on to the infamous Highway 63. Judging from the line up of cars on the highway, I could immediately see why the pressures exist to twin the highway. As I came to find out, the worksites have introduced many educational campaigns aimed at changing driver behaviors including driver fatigue, passing aggressively, speeding and distraction.   
Our tour continued at SAGD Operations (pronounced: sagg-dee) also known as In situ Operations (Latin for “in place”) run by Connacher. This plant is located one hour outside of Fort McMurray city limits where we got to see everything from the accordion pipelines that expand and contract with weather conditions to the final oil product that gets shipped by truckload for sale.
That evening we spent the night at a camp where we got to see how companies set themselves apart by creating a supportive, clean, nutritious environment for their staff. Managed by GRC Camp Services, camp life is not at all what I expected. I expected to be roughing it “camping style.” Instead I had a small hotel-style room including a bed, a shared bathroom, a television, desk, closet and sink – everything I would need for a comfortable rest before the next 12-14 hour shift. The supper, a seafood medley and pork tenderloin, was prepared by culinary trained professionals and was the best thing I had tasted in months! Menus are planned in detail to include all food groups with two entrees each (like herb crusted lamb chops and slow roasted prime rib with Yorkshire pudding) and side dishes to complement the meal! Although employees are there to make a living, Connacher focuses on giving them a life which also includes a workout facility, pool tables and a mini movie theatre.

Because of its remote location, Connacher places special emphasis on wildlife interactions and survival –
both for humans and animals. From a recruitment point of view it was interesting to hear that when deciding between two applicants, if one has spent time camping and exploring the outdoors and has equal theoretical knowledge to someone who is not familiar with the outdoors, the lover of the outdoors has the advantage. The first-hand outdoor education provides the employee with the know-how of how to deal with wildlife encounters that are very common up north.

The next day we set off for a tour of Syncrude where mining and processing bitumen is a 24 hour, 7 days a week, 365 day operation. One truck filled with bitumen is worth $20,000. In the 15 minutes we were there I saw three pass by. Each tire those trucks is $50,000 and there are six on each truck! The Syncrude tour was informative and addressed many myths regarding tailings ponds and reclamation.

Across the road from the active mining site is Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch. Wood bison, once native to the area, were thought to be extinct until 1957. The current herd of 300 bison was recovered from 31 animals loaned from the Elk Island National Park in 1993. I was inspired by the transformation from tailings pond to nature reserve working to nurture the growth of a once endangered species.

Having been a commuting employee for less than 48 hours I came to realize that this life is not for everyone. However, those who have dedicated themselves to their work and made this their life do really love it. Fort McMurray was built on innovation and we saw examples of this everywhere. To get the full picture, make time to visit the big town by applying for the University of Alberta Oil Sands Student Delegation. Fort McMurray is full of enthusiastic people, eager to share their story of how the town welcomes commuters, both near and far.  

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