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The Burning Issue: There's Nothing Hot About A Skilled Labour Shortage

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Crystal Boers knew the look. She was about to present on the importance of trades to another group of high schoolers, and that particular young student stood out.

You have nothing to offer me,” the look on her face said it all.

“Did you know cooking and hairstyling is also a trade?” Boers knew the factoid may just work.

It did.

“The student’s eyes lit up,” recalls Boers. Her questions came fast and furiously.

The Field Director of Careers: The Next Generation, Fort McMurray chapter, Boers is one of the many passionate advocates for the trades in our region.

Addressing the need for skilled labour shortage is a reality all too familiar to every entity in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. From the oil sands to the school boards to the service industry, everyone needs skilled workers.

“Careers: The Next Generation is 15 years old. It is a non-profit organization, driven by industry, to help youth test drive different careers in trades, ranging from health services to power engineering,” explains Boers, who joined the group almost two years ago.

In Fort McMurray alone, the group serves an estimated 270 clients a year. One of the major reasons for the current and imminent skilled labour shortage has to do with an aging Canadian population that is staring at retirement pretty soon.

“Our procedure manuals would need to be a lot more detailed very soon. There will be a dearth of mentors,” explains Janis Lawrence Harper, Regional Director, Careers: The Next Generation.

Apprenticeship, points out Lawrence Harper, is “enormously understaffed for journeymen.”

For the uninitiated, apprenticeship is gaining work experience while in a post-secondary education system, and includes job as well as technical training. Local industry relies heavily upon apprentices.

Ken Chapman, former Executive Director of the Oil Sands Developers Group in Fort McMurray, says the oil sands are partnering with Keyano College, NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) and SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) to produce apprentices.

He says skilled labour shortage is “one of the most serious challenges facing the oil sands.” This, as above mentioned, includes apprentices and engineers to name a few, and is based on an aging population, and the retention of employees given the socio-economic conditions in Wood Buffalo, notes Chapman.

“It is all interrelated. We need better transportation, health care, schools, community, and we are working with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Northern Lights Regional Health Services, and our school board for a holistic look at this issue,” explains Chapman, who has been recognized as one of Alberta Venture’s 50 Most Influential People in 2010 and received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for service to the community.

Speaking of interrelated, Keyano College, Fort McMurray’s two-year community college, has an in-demand Trades & Heavy Industrial Division that is applauded by local industry. From partnerships with the oil sands to major organizations, the college prides itself on delivering what the community needs and this of course includes skilled labour.

Dr. Kevin Nagel, Keyano’s President & CEO, calls it “playing a critical role in the challenges of a changing society.”

“The roles of post-secondary education have changed. Keyano College, along with other institutions has become a path of supply chain services. On one hand it assists companies in getting critical people, on the other, curriculum is produced out of creating awareness of a course.”


One course that is securing accolades across the province happens to be Keyano’s FINNtech program. It has emerged as an exemplary model to address skilled labour shortage. Launched by the college and Finning Canada in March 2012, the 20-month heavy equipment technician program is designed to meet Finning Canada’s increasing demand for heavy equipment technicians in the region.

The initiative, consisting of five theory sessions and five paid work placements with Finning Canada, is an innovative model born out of a collaborative spirit. Talk about collaboration for success -- Finning’s investment goes a long way.

For three years, starting in 2012, Finning Canada will invest approximately $3.5 million in bursaries, technology, equipment, and student incentives to support the FINNtech program. It is the single largest post-secondary education donation in Finning Canada’s history. The company took matters into its own hands, and is now educating and producing its own workforce. Keyano College accepts 24 students into each intake for a total of three intakes a year. That’s 72 students a year, give or take. There’s a reason FINNtech continues to be dubbed an “industry model” by a myriad of sectors.


And you thought the acronyms were done? Careers: The Next Generation is a huge advocate of Alberta Education’s Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP), which allows high school students to begin their trades apprenticeship while working toward graduation.

“It’s the grade 10 career exploring piece,” elaborates Boers.

Students interview in March for a three-week paid summer job with industry. Then comes one semester placement in grades 11 and 12. They get school credit and apprenticeship experience upon completion. Next comes the option of CCAP, which is the Co-Op Apprenticeship Program. This initiative “offers opportunities for recent high school graduates to pursue an apprenticeship through a variety of local employers,” according to the Careers website.

So is the local education sector under pressure from industry to produce the next cohort of skilled workers? Phil Meagher, Chief Deputy Superintendent, Fort McMurray Public School District (FMPSD) doesn’t seem to think so.

“While we hear about the skilled labour shortage from all sectors, our first priority is to educate students, not helping out industry with this shortage. We want students to make up their own minds. We don’t direct them; this is why we have job and career fairs to help them,” explains Meagher, who has been with the FMPSD for 30 years.

He says industry understands “we are educating students, and they have to have their Grade 12. If 10 years down the road they lose a job, they wouldn’t have a diploma to fall back on. Our job is to prepare them for post-secondary whether it is university, or trades,” Meagher added.

For Syncrude Canada, the preparation for the skilled labour shortage began in 2008 when the economy was flat.

“We started doing our own market surveys. We’re getting older – 20% of us are retiring by 2020,” shares Randy Stefanizyn, Syncrude’s Manager, Labour Relations.

Syncrude has about 5,400 employees. There are 100 in both Calgary and Edmonton for their project development and research centres respectively, while the rest are in Fort McMurray. Stefanizyn says the areas with skilled labour shortage include process operations, reliability, and engineering to name a few of the key areas.

Part of the solution was to help co-find the Alberta Council of Turnaround Industry Maintenance Stakeholders (ACTIMS). The group, according to their official website has a goal to “ensure that the turnarounds are fully staffed with available qualified, skilled, experienced workers.”

“ACTIMS helps create a labour pool for contractors that work on turnarounds – typically 30 to 45 day projects on our site where we shut down units, clean and repair them. These are not permanent staff for Syncrude. These contractors typically work right across Canada at other industrial operations where similar turnarounds are held,” explains Will Gibson, Public Affairs Advisor, Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Temporary Foreign Workers

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers, which helps fill immediate positions provided Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

Syncrude Canada’s priority has always been to hire from Alberta, then other parts of Canada, and, if needed, the United States, shares Stefanizyn, who has been with Syncrude for 29 years. The group has gone to Ireland to seek workers, but consciously seeks to recruit from Canada.

Suncor Energy maintains the same stance on recruitment. The priority is Alberta, then going national via what they call road shows to recruit people.

“In the grand scheme of things, we haven’t tapped into the international market. We will target refineries closing throughout North America to see if we can hire any skill set,” explains Tom Diamond, General Manager, Human Resources, Oil Sands, In Situ, Suncor Energy.

He says the skilled positions they need to fill have to do with senior operators, senior technical support, specialized engineers like quality assurance and control engineers as well as inspectors. He pegs the numbers at a “couple of hundred” positions that need to be filled.

The oil sands company is home to 15,000 employees, a third of whom live in the Wood Buffalo region. As for the shortage, Diamond says the reasons have to do with the oil sands growing very fast over the last decade.

“This means some of the skills in Canada have not kept up with the competition for the same resources. For example, we require a lot of maintenance for our plants, but apprentices have not kept up with it and power engineers as well,” explains Diamond, who has been with Suncor for 25 years, and is based in Calgary.


Engaging the Aboriginal population and bringing skilled new immigrants to Canada as a solution is a refrain used by industry time and time again. These untapped demographics will be an asset in solving the skilled labour shortage issue.

Chapman says then there’s the province, which needs to take the lead on public roads, bridges, and housing.

“Because of expensive housing, workers need to fly in and fly out. We need more land released and transportation issues fixed. All of this feeds into the making of a community and quality of life,” Chapman added.

As for Keyano, Dr. Nagel says the College has re-focused its approach on high demand programs and services whether they be economic, environmental, social, or cultural in nature. Gone are the days of traditional approaches to industry training although Keyano still utilizes heavy equipment in its trades programming.

“We are looking for state-of-the-art technology to facilitate training and recognize the potential that exists by combining different applied technologies such as simulators with online education tools, for example.”

“Can you imagine creating a fire on an expensive industrial machine just to teach students about safety? These types of capabilities are now available through simulators, which is evolving into the preferred teaching methodology at Keyano because of quality-related capabilities as well as the efficiencies related to resourcing quality online instructors. You don’t have to live in Fort McMurray, or Wood Buffalo for that matter, to be an instructor at Keyano College anymore,” continued Dr. Nagel.

Additionally, Dr. Nagel says he understands the need to be “relevant to the community that you serve, and Keyano College is definitely positioning itself to be part of the solution when it comes to addressing the skilled labour shortage and other strategic regional issues in Wood Buffalo.”

For Suncor’s Tom Diamond, the solution lies in education. The company’s collaboration with Keyano, NAIT, and SAIT is critical for future workforce he says.

“We have a world-class partnership with Keyano College for the Heavy Equipment Operator and technicians program that produces our future employees,” he said.

Additionally, the University of Alberta and University of Calgary’s Engineering co-op program, and Lethbridge University’s workforce/business programs also produce their future employees.

“Our real focus is to support the education,” Diamond added.

For Andrea Dube, Manager, Workforce Strategy, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the solution to combat skilled labour shortage lies in collaboration. She feels government, industry, stakeholders, and educational institutions need to come together to eradicate this issue.

“There’s always more that we can do and more opportunities to collaborate,” said Dube, who has been with the group for five years.

Temporary foreign workers are a short-term solution, while “developing Albertans” is a long-term solution, she added.

She said tapping into underrepresented populations like women, disabled individuals, and the Aboriginal communities is important.

“Awareness of energy literacy, and removing the stigma, as well as welcoming the trades is important,” shared Dube.

{tab=IN DEMAND JOBS: 2011-2020}

  • Chemical Engineering Technologist
  • Chemical Engineers
  • Civil Engineers
  • Crane Operators
  • Drafting Technologists and Technicians
  • Drilling Coordinators/Production Managers
  • Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technologists and Technicians
  • Electrical/Instrumentation Engineers
  • Environmental Technicians
  • Geologists and Geophysicists
  • Heavy Equipment Operators
  • Heavy-duty Equipment Mechanics
  • Industrial Electricians
  • Inspectors in Public, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety
  • Instrumentation Engineering Technologists
  • Instrumentation Technicians
  • Insulators
  • Millwrights and Machinists
  • Mechanical Engineering Technologist
  • Mechanical Engineers
  • Mining Engineers
  • Oil and Gas well Drivers, Servicers, Testers and related workers, operators, and labourers
  • Operators – Steam and Non-Steam Ticket
  • Petroleum Engineering Technologists
  • Petroleum Engineers
  • Production Clerks/Production Accountants
  • Project/Cost Control Engineers
  • Purchasing Agents/Landmen
  • Quality Assurance Analysts
  • Steamfitters/Pipefitters
  • Supervisors, Oil and Gas Drilling and Service
  • Supervisors, Petroleum, Gas and Chemical Processing and Utilities
  • Truck Drivers
  • Welders

Courtesy: Careers The Next Generation


  • Increase the attraction scenario (awareness opportunity, leverage youth in Alberta)
  • Increase underrepresented labour pools
  • Align education with future skills needs
  • Promote more linkage between high school – post secondary
  • Provide for certification programs at an earlier age
  • Retention and mid-career transitions
  • Industry views youth as an investment

Courtesy: Careers The Next Generation


  • Boilermakers
  • Bricklayers
  • Cement Masons
  • Construction and General Workers
  • Carpenters/Scaffolders
  • Electricians
  • Insulators
  • Ironworkers
  • Millwrights
  • Operating Engineers
  • Painters
  • Pipefitters/Steamfitters
  • Sheet Metal Workers



  • Approximately 80% of an apprentice’s learning is done “on the job”. Training is provided by the employer, with the apprentice learning from a certified journeyperson or qualified individual and is measured in hours and months.
  • Approximately 20% of an apprentice’s learning is completed through a post-secondary establishment - usually a college or technical training institution.
  • Apprentices are required to successfully pass an industry examination at the end of each block/period of training.
  • An apprenticeship program lasts one to four years depending on the trade.
  • When an apprentice has satisfied all the requirements of the program, therefore completing the contract, he or she is granted an Alberta Journeyman Certificate.

Source: tradesecrets.alberta.calearn-on-the-job/whats-an-apprenticeship/