The mass Alberta exodus

Oil rig workers abandon Alberta in droves, fed up with drying work and harsh lifestyle

Dustin Plett, 24, is glad to have left the Alberta oil fields behind. “It’s a dangerous industry,” he said. Mark Reimer

Armed with a Red Seal in welding, Dustin Plett moved out to Alberta four years ago intent on making a lot of money.

But the current Red River Creative Communications student came back two years later.

While the money was good, Plett said working long 10-hour plus days on oil rigs, gas pipelines and coal mines seven days a week burns many people out.

Combine that with a party lifestyle, and no wonder the industry has a high turnover rate.

Plett said there are some problems with substance abuse among the workers.

“You have uneducated young people who make more money than they have ever seen. What do you think they’ll do with it?” Plett said. “It’s a dangerous industry.”

“Every company has resources to deal with those issues,” said Nancy Malone, Economic Analysis Manager for the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, adding that every company has health programs which make counseling available for those workers with problems.

But Plett was not the only out of province worker seeking riches in Alberta’s once-booming economy.

If it’s bad now, it will be that much worse come summer.

Jeff, Beaver Drilling Ltd.

Jeff is the superintendent of Beaver Drilling Ltd. out of Edmonton, which runs about 13 drilling rigs. He requested his last name not be used. Jeff considers his company to be one of the smaller rig contractors, employing about 260 people.

Jeff estimates about half of his workers come from out of province.

He is familiar with the problem of workers leaving Alberta as the oil well runs dry. The work may not be full-time, so while some may move to Alberta temporarily, most can’t afford to stay due to the high housing cost.

“Normally we have everything going right now, but we are only running at about half tilt,” Jeff said.

“If it’s bad now, it will be that much worse come summer.”

Plett sees a mass exodus out of Alberta and people having trouble coping with the lifestyle change as a result.

“You want to keep working to support that lifestyle,” he said. “I wouldn’t doubt if people are moving to Saskatchewan. It’s really booming right now.”

Jeff blames a lot of the industry’s troubles on the new royalty system the Alberta government announced last October and will be implementing this year. That system will increase the fees oil companies pay to the government in order to drill on Alberta soil.

As a result, investment interest is moving to British Columbia, said Don Herring, President of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors.

“It also has to do with commodity prices and the credit crisis,” Herring said. “But the royalties are punishing in some aspects.”

Plett has some advice for those planning on heading out to Alberta’s oil fields.

“It’s still a good opportunity to make good money if you have a good head—but get an education first.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 29, 2009)

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