Growing pains

Communities rush to meet the challenges of

It's around 8:30 on a frigid moonlit January morning on the north side of Fort McMurray. Two construction workers are unloading precast concrete beams from the back of a semi- trailer at a sprawling apartment-condominium complex.

It must be minus 20°C-maybe minus 25-so cold I can barely feel my fingers despite thick gloves. But Fort McMurray, a place where a mobile home can fetch $400,000, is in desperate need of housing, so the construction continues even on the coldest of mornings.

The two workers, Roy Hargrave and Darrel Carey, joke about the temperature with the photographer, Joey Podlubny, who is shooting pictures of the towering white Liebherr hydraulic crane from Northern Crane Services.

The workers, their mustaches white with frost, echo what others have said. There's no problem finding work here. In fact, these workers, based in Calgary, have jobs lined up for several years.

The region's labour shortage is well known throughout Canada. Charles Iggulden, president of the Fort McMurray Construction Association for the past three years, admits that finding skilled labour is a big issue for his membership.

"They're [association members] very concerned about quality products," he says. Long-term relationships are crucial, he adds. "That's always a challenge, to make sure you give proper customer service."

With $90 to $100 billion in oilsands work is planned for the next few years, it's a challenge that won't go away anytime soon.

A report on worker needs and shortages that was prepared in December for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry found that of the about a quarter of the 50,000 jobs in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, were construction related. Eighty per cent of residential construction companies surveyed expressed difficulty in filling certain positions.

According to the report, some of the most difficult positions to fill mentioned were labourer, salesperson, carpet installer, carpenter, and administrative staff. On the non-residential side, it was a bit better. Only 60 per cent of non-residential construction companies report having difficulties finding staff.

The hardest jobs to fill? Carpenters, drivers, mechanics, welders, electrical engineers, management staff, administrative staff, accountants, janitors, labourers, and heavy equipment operators. Here are some of the answers given when companies in both categories were asked why it's so difficult to fill some construction jobs:

  • "There is a huge shortage of tradespeople right now."
  • "It is difficult to find someone who is skilled. Many people write on their résumé that they have experience and know what they're doing. Just because you can hammer in some nails doesn't make you a carpenter."
  • Up here, the problem is that people aren't qualified."
  • "I get many résumés each day, but I only get three or four résumés a month from labourers. Most people don't want these jobs and don't apply for them."

But it's not only finding skilled labour that's an issue in the oilsands. The Wood Buffalo region's infrastructure is strained. The explosive growth has created traffic nightmares. And finding affordable housing iswell, good luck.

According to Royal Le Page True North Realty, the average selling price for a multi-family unit in December was $404,994. While that's below the $638,242 a single-family home fetched that month, it illustrates what buyers have to pay in the market.

Employment, Immigration and Industry analysis found that the majority of construction companies provide some sort of living allowance or housing for workers.

"We want everybody to feel good, and you can't feel good if you don't have a place to live," said one of the survey's participants. "The company owns two trailers where people who work for them can stay. It's a trailerbut it's a roof over your head."

Iggulden says the Fort McMurray area's growth caught many by surprise. What's needed now, in addition to more affordable housing, is for Highway 63 to be twinned to relieve traffic congestion "and a lot more retail and industrial type services."

Entering "Oilsands Alley"

With all the attention on oilsands operations near Fort McMurray, it's easy to forget that production is occurring in other areas as well. Increasingly, companies are using steam assisted gravity drainage technology to bring the oil from the ground. That's helped the region running south along Highway 881 from Fort McMurray to earn the nickname "Oilsands Alley."

It is the following day and I am in Lac La Biche, a lakeside hamlet 3 ½ hours south of Fort McMurray on the southern edge of the Athabasca oilsands deposit. Jane Palmer, a genial woman with a bright smile, is telling me about a new condominium project that's being built, a hotel construction project that will begin this spring south of the hamlet, and the increased traffic she's noticed along Highway 55 recently.

"We're at the crossroads of two major oilsands deposits [Athabasca and Cold Lake]," she points out. "What do they say?" She pauses a moment, then leans slightly forward across the desk.

"Location, location, location."

Palmer is general manager of Community Futures, a not-for-profit organization that provides loans to small businesses and works with Lac La Biche County (it had been Lakeland County until last year) to provide economic development services. She proudly points to the county's double-digit growth in the 2006 Census (the population is now over 9,100) and discusses what's bringing people to the community.

"I think they come maybe as tourists initially and they're looking for some lake lots," she explains. "And then we're finding some are into the retirement. Maybe they have family still in Fort McMurray. They want to be somewhat close but not in Fort McMurray."

Not hemmed in

"This is one of your first stops coming south of Fort McMurray. We're not hemmed in by provincially owned land like Conklin and Fort McMurray. That gives us an interesting dynamic in that we can grow, whether that's commercial or residential. We're not waiting on the province to release land. We already have it here."

According to Mark Wiebe, development officer for Lac La Biche County, water and sewer service has been installed from the hamlet west to Plamondon and east to Lakeview Estates subdivision near the golf course.

"We have seen significant growth in these serviced areas and anticipate that the growth pressures will continue to be heavy in these areas in particular," he says. There are also a few development proposals in various stages of the approval process on the north and east side of Lac La Biche, he notes.

Like Wiebe, Palmer credits the paving of Highway 881 as opening the area to more development. Whatever future growth occurs, problems such as increased crime and accidents are almost certain to arise. But Palmer is realistic about that as well.

"We have issues here," she admits. "It's not Shangri-La."

Palmer wants Lac La Biche to be ready to meet tomorrow's growth-something she believes is only a matter of time.

"StatoilHydro is the first [oilsands] company that has land in the northern component of Lac La Biche County," she says. "They have the first oil company office in our community as well."

From an economic development standpoint, attracting an oilsands services company to the community would be a big plus, she says.

"It feels like we're at the brink here."

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