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The Global Battle for Workers

March 8, 2012

The Global Battle for Workers:

Alberta employers building major energy projects are struggling to fill jobs in the trades, engineering and project management, and face plenty of competition.

Developments in Australia, South America and the Gulf States - many led by Canadian companies - are offering opportunities to Canada's best and brightest engineers, tradespeople and experienced managers with a desire to work elsewhere.

They are also attracting the types of skilled people who might have considered working in Alberta but decided on other provinces or countries. Here are some of them:


Plenty of workers have traditionally headed west for jobs in Alberta's oilpatch, but now Saskatchewan has its own, rapidly expanding tight oil plays in the Bakken formation in the southern part of the province. (A tight oil play is one that requires fracking.) Up north, uranium is a growing draw, with Cameco's $1.8billion Cigar Lake project underway. But below the plains lies a truly world-class resource, salty rock layers left by ancient seas. Potash fertilizer is booming, with Mosaic Potash and the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan both in the midst of billion-dollar expansions.

The biggest of them all, though, is the Jansen project being developed by global mining giant BHP Billiton.

Northwest of Regina, and with a deposit of 3.37 billion tonnes, the $4.5-billion Jansen will be the world's largest potash mine. Jansen will create 1,900 construction jobs and 1,000 operational jobs. During the mine's 70-year life, it is expected to generate $90 billion in royalties and taxes for Saskatchewan.

British Columbia:

Beautiful B.C. has major mountain resort expansions - Big White and Revelstoke ski hills are spending hundreds of millions - but the real action is north.

Major mines, pipelines and tight natural gas production are fuelling a tight labour market if all the projects planned go ahead.

Mines include: the $500-million Quinette coal mine, due to start construction this spring; Taseko's proposed $1.5-billion Prosperity gold and copper mine south of Williams Lake, which is now seeking regulatory approval; the $3-billion KSM copper and gold mine near Stewart near the coast; and the $3-billion Schaft Creek copper and gold mine in the northern interior. In Kitimat, the $3-billion liquefied natural gas terminal is ready to begin construction, and several natural gas pipelines are under construction to bring B.C. gas to port for export. If the $6.6-billion Northern Gateway oil and diluent pipeline project is approved, construction could start in two years.

But for sheer scale, construction is expected to begin this year on B.C. Hydro's $7.9-billion Peace River Site "C" dam. Construction will take seven years and create 35,000 direct and indirect jobs throughout the project stages.

United States:

With higher unemployment than Canada, one would think Americans would be lining up for jobs in Alberta. But the types of workers Alberta needs are also scarce south of the border.

North Dakota is booming. With an oil industry now producing 500,000 barrels per day and growing, the state is expected to soon surpass California and Alaska and trail only Texas as the biggest oil producer in the U.S.

Companies there are facing a big shortage of skilled manpower for fracking, drilling and well servicing. It is much easier for skilled workers to move from Minneapolis to Minot than to cross the border and head for Fort McMurray.


With large deposits of gold and copper, Chile has for years been a major focus of Canadian mining companies such as Toronto-based Barrick, the world's biggest gold producer, along with Kinross Gold, Yamana Gold, Goldcorp, Quadra Mining and Vancouver's Teck Resources. The size of the investments is large, as is the demand for engineers and project managers.

For example, almost 40 per cent of Barrick's global gold reserves are in Chile, and it is planning several new projects. For example, its Pascua-Lama project on the border of Chile and Argentina is sitting on 17.8 million ounces of gold and 671 million ounces of silver.

The mine will cost $5 billion to develop. The Cerro Casale Barrick joint-venture is one of the world's largest undeveloped deposits, with 23.3 million ounces of gold and vast amounts of copper, and a $6-billion development price tag. Goldcorp's El Morro joint venture has 8.4 million ounces of gold and six billion pounds of copper, with a development cost of $4 billion.

The list goes on, but this nation is becoming a larger target for Canadian investment dollars and skilled manpower.


This nation is likely to be an economic giant in the very near future. It has plenty of mineral wealth and is already the world's biofuel leader. It is planning five huge hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin. On top of that it has an amazing offshore oilfield that has riveted world attention.

The below-the-salt (pre-sal) oilfields are very deep - more than 5,000 metres - and very large. So far they are estimated at 50 billion barrels, which is about the size of the North Sea fields that have brought wealth to the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands.

State-owned oil firm Petrobras is planning to spend $224 billion by 2015 to develop this field. By 2020, Brazil expects to be pumping 4.9 million barrels a day, with 40 per cent coming from pre-sal and the rest from its other huge fields. That would place Brazil in fifth place among world oil producers.

For Alberta, this means there is a huge competitor for oilsands capital investment and skilled manpower needed by the foreign firms that are working with Petrobras.


Neighbouring Dubai is building $64-billion Dubailand, a destination theme park three times larger than Walt Disney World in Florida. With theme parks, sports venues, health facilities, science attractions and hotels and one of the biggest malls in the world, the project will be completed by 2025. And like at Jubail II, project managers and engineers are in demand.

Saudi Arabia:

Plenty of Albertans work in the Middle East oilpatch and have for decades, but Saudi Arabia is no longer just about oil. The kingdom is spending tens of billions on a huge industrial project called Jubail II. Key elements are 100 factory complexes and expanded port facilities; an 800,000 cubic metre desalination plant; a 1,065-km railway connecting Jubail to Riyadh and several desert mines; and an oil refinery that will produce at least 350,000 barrels a day. Western project managers and engineers are in demand.


If there is one place on the planet that Alberta firms see as the biggest draw for skilled staff - and the region that sends recruiters to Alberta twice a year to entice workers from here - it is the dry and resource-rich state of Western Australia. With world-class iron ore and natural gas projects underway, the Pilbara region 1,300 kilometres north of Perth along the coast is particularly hot - in temperature and economic activity.

The iron ore mines are numerous and massive, offering direct rail links to ports for shipping this key ingredient for steelmaking to China and other Asian nations. BHP Billiton has one of the biggest iron ore mines in the world here, the five-km-by-1.5km Mount Whaleback. This is the kind of scale you see at the massive oilsands mines - and the skills needed by the engineers and skilled trades are very similar in both Australia and Alberta.

BHP employs 13,000 people in the Pilbara, and competitor Rio Tinto is a similar size. And both have major expansion plans underway despite the fact China's steel production fell in 2011. The major iron ore players figure this is a short-term blip.

Off the coast, the emerging story is natural gas and the massive Gorgon project, a technically challenging endeavour headed by Chevron, Shell and Mobil. The Gorgon field is estimated to hold 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and much of it will be exported as LNG (liquid natural gas) to Asian markets.

Initially, plans are for three, five-million-tonnes-a-year LNG production streams, a much larger size than the projects proposed for Kitimat, B.C. This one project will increase the Australian GDP (gross domestic product) by $64 billion in the first 30 years of its life, providing about 10,000 jobs at peak construction.

However, the boom could fizzle as labour costs go through the roof (the country's oil and gas workers are the world's highest paid, raking in $140,000 a year, double the world average for the sector) and lower-priced projects in other nations (the U.S., Russia and even Canada) compete to supply Asian markets.


While it has no projects that draw Canadian technical help, this country has been a significant source of skilled labour. Learning from past experience, some Alberta firms have actually contacted tradespeople in the Philippines and ensured they have the credentials to work in this province. But new business is developing a bit more slowly than expected in the oilsands, so while there may be a wave of activity coming, it isn't here yet.

In the meantime, these ready-for-Alberta tradespeople are being snapped up by firms from Singapore and China. While China has plenty of workers, skilled trades with experience are in demand in every country.


Once the biggest source of non-Alberta labour for the oilsands, The Rock is quickly moving from a depressed area to a booming beacon for Atlantic Canada in three categories - oil, minerals and hydro power.

The Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose offshore oilfields developed in the past decade now pump 500,000 barrels per day, a huge boost to the economy. And the best is yet to come. Construction is expected to start soon on the $6-billion Hebron project that will use a giant gravity-based structure that will sit on the sea floor - it will support drilling on top and below will store more than one million barrels of oil that can be loaded directly into tankers. The Hebron field contains several reservoirs estimated to hold up to 700 million barrels of oil, and will see 45 wells drilled to 4,500 metres. Hebron will create 3,500 jobs and pay the province $20 billion in royalties over the life of the project.

Meanwhile, in Long Harbour, global mineral giant Vale is completing its $2.8-billion processing plant that will handle the flow of nickel ore concentrate being produced at Voisey's Bay in Labrador, giving the province the title of one of the world's largest nickel producers.

And following a federal loan guarantee in November, it seems the $6.2-billion, 3,500-megawatt Lower Churchill power project will move ahead. First phase is the Muskrat Falls dam, which could be supplying power by underwater cable to the province by 2017. A second larger dam and cable to Nova Scotia and markets in the U.S. will likely follow.

By Dave Cooper The Edmonton Journal


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