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Four Strong Winds….or better still oil patch blues

How things have changed! I wrote about 10 years ago, and at the time I thought $40 barrel was ridiculous–how would that be possible?  But what’s that biblical reference, turn, turn, turn…the first shall be last and the last shall be first, etc. I suppose it’s no use heading out there now….

“Think I’ll go out to Alberta / Weather’s good there in the fall / Got some friends I could go to working for…”  (from Four Strong Winds by Ian Tyson.

Go West older driver-or maybe not!

A recent ad in the National Post tweaked my interest. An oil company in Alberta was looking for professional drivers. But what struck me was the size of the ad, in a big framed box sitting right next to others seeking vice presidents, CEOs, systems analysts, and comptrollers.

I never thought I’d see the day when truck drivers were as valued as upper management. But that day might be upon us. The petroleum and mining industries are absolutely ravenous for trainable drivers. With oil hovering around $70, the mucky tar sands are looking mighty delicious, even if the cost of extracting the black mud is outrageous. And it’s not just the petroleum industry that needs drivers. All kinds of mining initiatives are going on throughout the go through northern Alberta, NWT, and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. And that means massive spin offs to the transport service industry.

“It’s absolutely the hottest market this side of the planet,” says Roy Craigen, president of TRANSCOM, whose company consults with companies in the oil patch. “Everything imaginable moves in the oil industry, from flat decks and pickers to vacuum trucks, multi-dimensional loads and hazardous materials.”

Craigen mentions the excellent wages some drivers are making driving dump trucks in Ft. McMurray. There are no ordinary dump trucks, mind you, they’re the size of a three story house. But the remuneration can be truly spectacular.

“This is a huge industry that’s in need of supervisors, safety professionals, managers and professional drivers. We see our role at TRANSCOM as helping them find talent both in the office and in the truck as well as training existing staff to achieve high operating standards. The best we heard was a guy who took our Dispatcher / Supervisor Course and landed a $125,000 a year job, complete with new pick up truck as a company vehicle.”

So there is gold in them thar hills. Jon Summers is the owner of a small trucking company in St. John’s, Nfld that hauls frozen seafood products. He laughs into the phone when he tells me about the sign in front of the Crossroads Motel, a local St. John’s truck stop. “It says, “Help Wanted Apply Within… If you’re not going to Alberta.”

Summers has seen the migration first hand. He tells me about Gilly Swaine from Gander who’s put a couple of trucks on with Suncor and is sending drivers out with them, and Brian Hussey from over in Spaniards Bay, who overnight packed up his tractors and flat decks, headed west, and hasn’t been heard from since.

“If I was ten years younger, I’d go myself,” Summers says wistfully. “Just to see if it’s as good as they say it is.”

I reach Gilbert Swain at his home in Gander and he confirms he’s sending his trucks to work for a contractor in a camp 70 km. north of Ft. McMurray. He’s found a couple of friends with oil patch experience who will be driving the International and Freightliner. “Most probably those trucks will never be back in Newfoundland,” he says almost sadly.

Peter Nelson, president of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, thinks it’s not just truckers who are in demand–all trades are getting seduced. “As far as trucking goes, we think that if may be a spin off from the downturn in the forestry sector. Folks who had trucks and dumps packed up and headed for the oil patch.”

“We have people leaving Atlantic Canada who would be working in the trucking industry, but that’s the case in every industry. But to go beyond the trucking context, in a sense we’re losing a generation to Alberta. People who would have gone into nursing or teaching are going to Alberta for the fast buck.”

Canadians have always gone where the work was and Alberta is no stranger to boom/bust cycles. Still off-road work isn’t for everybody. The busy time is the winter and the job can be brutal and rugged. A special exemption allows these drivers to work 15 hours a day 7 days a week and many of them do.

It’s a completely different world from pin to pin work and cruising down the highway at 105 kph. Off-road means crawling through bush and over ice roads instead of blacktops.

This is world of jeeps and boosters, 24 wheeled trailers and 145,000 lb. loads. And it’s not all driving. About half the time is spent loading equipment and tearing it down at the other end. The trucks are usually mean-ass Kenworths with 500 or more snorting horses.

Mark Larson is a dispatcher for KOS in Drayton Valley, Alta. “The only way we could be busier is if we had more drivers. But they’re hard to find. The problem with a highway hauler is you have to retrain him and break him of everything he’s learnt,” he says. “Most of our drivers start as swampers working with winch lines. But this is very specialized work… and very physical, sometimes you’re up to your knees in mud.”

A manager of another oil field transport company told me about five guys who showed up from Val D’Or, Que. who were hired immediately. “They had off-road experience,” he says.

But before you jump in your truck and head off to Fort McMurray you should understand that it’s not all milk and honey out there. Just finding a place to live may be a huge task, and real estate values are tremendously overpriced. And one hears horror stories of several guys sharing a tiny room and getting gouged mightily.

And what happens if oil prices drop to $30-40 per barrel? It seems unthinkable now, but when this balloon bursts, and historically it always does, that mobile home you just bought for tens of thousands is going to be worth peanuts once again.

For my part, I’ve got a pretty good job hauling no-touch freight and a good place to live, so I won’t be uprooting any time soon. Still, if I were ten years younger…

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio. With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.
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1 Comment » for Four Strong Winds….or better still oil patch blues
  1. meslippery says:

    This just in listening to BNN about Alberta and oil.
    The guest said we got truck drivers driving around making $150k per year something had to give.
    Really? $150k my sound like a good job if its Monday to Friday 9:00 TO 5:00.
    Truckers making that much 15 hours a day 7 days a week. You have to look at the big picture.
    Still in the 80s in Ontario you could make $100k
    But my house was 50k now 250k I in my 20s could
    but a house on a truckers wage.
    Try that now.

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