Suncor, Encana and Enbridge tap unconventional labor
New and underutilized talent could help solve a perennial labor shortfall
Ramez Hanna Alla
Production and optimization, northwest business unit
As a student enrolled in the University of Calgary’s mechanical engineering program, Ramez Hanna Alla pictured himself working in the auto sector one day, not the oil patch. “Going into engineering I thought I was going to come out and get to work with Honda, Toyota or Ferrari,” he recalls.
But Hanna Alla was raised in Calgary, not Detroit. Cowtown is oil and gas country. For an aspiring engineer, there are a lot more job opportunities in the petroleum sector than in making cars. So in May of 2008, he took a summer job working for Encana Corp.
The summer posting has turned into a full-time job. The transition is proof that the so-called millennial generation is not a lost cause for the oil and gas industry, especially when companies are proactive.
Hanna Alla, 23, joined Encana through a summer student hiring initiative the company calls its “New Grad” program. It’s been in place since 2006. The Calgary-based natural gas giant hires approximately 40 of its summer students each year. After they’re hired, the new grads are given three different assignments over a three- to four-year period.
That kind of variety was attractive to Hanna Alla. He says he was considering different career options after he graduated from the University of Calgary, and didn’t want to get stuck doing the same tasks day after day.
That hasn’t been a problem in the New Grad program. His first assignment was looking after a facility that had approximately 160 wells. But he’s also been involved in other projects, such as examining ways to reduce the amount of gas being vented at Encana’s field facilities.
It’s that kind of work that gets an ambitious young engineer like Hanna Alla excited about his job, and his future in the oil and gas industry.
And if more university graduates – or soon-to-be graduates – shake off their pre-conceived notions of the oil and gas industry and take the time to learn what the work is all about, Hanna Alla thinks they will be more inclined to make it their career. They just have to forego the cheques from Ferrari.
“I’d encourage [young people] to get engaged,” Hanna Alla says. “Whatever industry you are working in is using energy. The clothes we wear. The food we eat. It’s a big part of our everyday lives.”
Savanna Energy Services Corp.
In 2005, Alison Toews was employed by a safety company that worked in the oil and gas industry when she learned she had been passed over for a promotion. The reason? She was a woman. “I was politely informed by my boss at the time that the oil patch wasn’t ready for girls,” Toews says.
That news could have caused Toews to leave the oil and gas business. Instead she used it as motivation. “I figured the easiest way to get the oil patch ready for girls was to start from the ground level and work my way through.”
The Fort Saskatchewan resident has certainly done that. In 2005, Toews got a job working as a roughneck – the most entry level position on a drill rig – with Precision Drilling.
It was supposed to be a temporary gig. She just wanted to prove to her male co-workers that women had a place in the oil patch. But along the way, Toews caught the rig hand bug. “I fell in love with it,” she says.
Fast forward to 2012. The love affair hasn’t faded. In fact, Toews, 30, has gradually moved up the pecking order in this male-dominated business, and now works for a Savanna Energy Services Corp. rig crew as a derrickhand.
It’s no secret the oil and gas industry could use more women like Toews. Hiring more women is one obvious solution to a vexing industry problem.
So why aren’t there more women like Alison Toews pacing rig floors across Western Canada? Fear has a lot to do with it. The fear of not being able to handle the physical nature of the work. The fear of being away from home for long stretches in remote locations. And, yes, the fear of sexual harassment.
“They’re scared because there is this bad boy attitude about the oil patch,” Toews says. “But as the older mentality is starting to leave it’s getting easier and easier for women to get in there without having to deal with the stereotypical response. And companies, they don’t want that. They realize there is this untapped pool of women out there and if a guy is going to be [an idiot] to women, they don’t want him.”
Toews says her goal is to become a toolpusher, the highest position at a drilling location. Along the way, she’d like to inspire other women to give the career a shot.
“There are a lot of girls out there. But the problem is they don’t realize they can do it,” she says. “That’s what I want to do. I want to make it to [toolpusher]. I want to stand up and say, ‘Look, we can do it.’
Suncor Energy Inc.
Director, human resources
It’s well documented that operators in the oil sands have had to look beyond Alberta’s borders to find solutions to their labor woes.
Suzie Johnson is the other side of that story. She’s homegrown – born and raised in Alberta – and also aboriginal, a demographic in Western Canada that is growing, but still underutilized in the oil patch. And she’s an example of what aboriginal people (Johnson is Métis) can bring to oil and gas companies when they are given the opportunity.
Johnson got her start in the industry with Suncor Energy Inc. in 1998, taking an entry-level position in the firm’s accounting department in Fort McMurray. She’s been with Suncor ever since, and last fall she was named as the company’s director of human resources for its Fort McMurray office.
Johnson says she never considered working for an oil sands company, even though she grew up in Fort McMurray. She took the Suncor job after finishing school at the University of Calgary because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do as a career.
But nearly 15 years later, Johnson has found her niche and is in a leadership position, after taking on a number of different roles – from human resources analyst to an advisor/recruiter to her role as director today.
“Suncor’s been really good about it. I’ve always been provided with opportunities to grow, new projects, new partners, and I didn’t get exposure to one aspect, but to all aspects of human resources,” she says.
In her role as director of human resources at Suncor’s Fort McMurray office, Johnson is acutely aware of how important finding skilled labor is to the success of the company.
Johnson says she doesn’t consider herself a role model for other aboriginal people who are considering a career in the oil and gas sector. But she also wouldn’t mind if her journey inspires at least a few more of her people to take the plunge.
“I hope what I’ve done could encourage others to take a risk and challenge themselves and get in to the oil and gas industry,” she says. “That would be wonderful.”
Director, mainline projects
Hiring someone from overseas to work in Alberta’s oil and gas industry can be a delicate matter. But demographic realities can’t be ignored. Not when the oil and gas sector plans to produce 6.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2030 and export millions of tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually to offshore markets.
That’s why finding skilled labor from foreign locales is a necessity, even if it has the potential to raise hackles with the locals. Enter Carlos Pardo, who 12 years ago moved his family from his home in Columbia’s biggest city, Bogota, to chilly Edmonton, to take a job with Enbridge Inc.
A chemical engineer by trade, Pardo was no stranger to the Calgary-based pipeline company (before coming to Alberta he worked for the Ocensa pipeline, an 829-kilometer conduit that Enbridge once owned a 24.7 per cent interest in before selling it in 2009).
He was also no stranger to working on big projects. He helped design Ocensa and the marine terminal that loaded Colombian crude from the pipeline on to tankers at the port of Covenas.
Pardo says the decision to take a job with Enbridge in Edmonton in 2000 was not a difficult one. With a large portfolio of pipelines and energy infrastructure located across North America, and plenty of future projects in the cue, the Calgary-based pipeline company seemed like the ideal place to enhance his skills.
“It’s a company that always growing and looking for wider markets,” Pardo says. “That type of potential is what attracts you.”
However, it’s not always easy to find the right fit when looking abroad to fill a position. Language and cultural differences must be overcome.
It often requires the employee to uproot his or her family from familiar surroundings. But if those hurdles can be overcome, international employees have a lot to offer Canadian companies operating in the energy sector, particularly when they come from jurisdictions like Colombia, which has enjoyed an oil and gas boom of its own the past decade and has many workers with skill sets that are in need in Alberta.
“The oil and gas industry is very demanding,’ Pardo says. “So you will have very hard workers [from overseas] and they will have the incentive to do a good job. They’ve got that opportunity and they don’t want to burn it.”