Irving Oil Ltd. will spend $20 million and hire 800 workers for a month-long maintenance project on its Saint John oil refinery, the company said Monday.

The "turnaround" started on Monday and is expected to take four weeks to complete.

Dale Cooper, the refinery's operations manager, said maintenance projects such as this one are planned two to three years in advance and provide the company with a chance to perform necessary upgrades and clean the refinery to allow it operate more efficiently.

As the refinery has expanded over the years, Cooper said, these shutdowns have become more frequent with 2005 being the only year in the last five not to have a turnaround.

These turnarounds are typically planned for the fall because a lull is usually found between the summer driving peak and the cold weather of winter, he said.

The company does not believe it will face any problems recruiting enough skilled workers to carry out the maintenance, he said.

"Perhaps 100 will be drafted [from current employees] into the turnaround operations," Cooper said. "The other 700 that will come out of the various trade unions, halls across New Brunswick, Atlantic Canada and across Canada."

Irving Oil is expected to hire a long list of trades people to work on the project and the company statement said most of the employees will be from New Brunswick.

Energy Minister Jack Keir said the refinery maintenance project is coming at a time when many of the workers who are coming off of other jobs in the region can easily transition to this project.

However, Keir said southern New Brunswick could soon be facing a skilled worker shortage if many of the energy projects on the drawing board come to fruition, such as a second refinery or a second nuclear reactor.

"There is no question, it is going to be an issue," Keir said.

The advantage to these short-term maintenance projects is that it trains workers in the energy field for future energy sector investments.

The Saint John skyline will also look different for the four weeks of the turnaround as the company will have 10 cranes working on the project. The company is also boasting about the spinoffs that will be generated for local businesses, such as an estimated 1,125 additional meals that will be ordered from local restaurants.

"Certainly with the amount of money being spent on the turnaround, a good chunk of that is wages that will be earned by the trades people, they will be occupying our local hotels, motels and restaurants," Cooper said.