Fort McMurray's workers desperate to find jobs during economic slump

Plunging oil prices, growing layoffs and slowing spending have many workers in Fort McMurray’s oilpatch hustling for work — and wondering whether they can still make a go of it in a city feeling the weight of Alberta’s current economic slump.

'It is pretty scary right now. If it stays slow, I am packing up and leaving,' floor installer says

Oil plunge hits home

The National

5 years agoVideo
CBC's Briar Stewart examines the effect of the global oil glut on Canada's resource industry 2:01

Nearly 20 vehicles, most of them trucks, lined up around the outside of a Tim Hortons in downtown Fort McMurray last Friday morning, as temperatures hovered around –25 C. The cold kept most people in their vehicles, but Nabil Abadi rolled down the window of his work van long enough to describe the change he has seen in the city as oil prices plunged.

"Everybody is complaining. Barber. Flooring guys. People that work on the sites. Everybody is complaining," he said. "Everything else has slowed down except Timmy's."

Abadi installs flooring in homes, and when money is tight people don't build new properties or invest in renovations, he said.

"It is pretty scary right now," he said."If it stays slow, I am packing up and leaving."

Even though oil production in the province was actually up five per cent last year, companies have streamlined operations and require fewer workers.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said in its most recent update that 40,000 jobs have been directly lost due to plummeting oil prices, and tens of thousands more have been affected indirectly by less money being spent in the wider economy.

Fort McMurray's new airport terminal has seen a substantial drop in passengers as the city loses direct flights and is getting fewer charters. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

In 2014, Fort McMurray's new $250-million airport terminal opened to accommodate increasing air traffic, and while more than one million people passed through the terminal last year, passenger numbers were down 16 per cent. The biggest drop occurred with charter flights, where numbers were down 50 per cent, according to airport officials.

"We can pretty much survive at even another 10 per cent downturn without doing anything crazy, like raising our rates and charges," said Scott Clements, CEO and president of Fort McMurray's airport.

But he said declining demand has led to fewer flights going in and out of the airport. The flight between Fort McMurray and Red Deer has already been cancelled, and come February, the Fort McMurray to Kelowna flight will be suspended as well.

"There are 35,000 trips a year of workers coming back and forth to Fort McMurray, and when the trigger happens and the economy comes around [Kelowna] will be re-established."

The airport has also lost its daily flight to Denver and its only international flight, which was to Mexico, but Clements said that has more to do with the poor Canadian dollar, which has also been driven down in part by the slump in oil prices.

Housing sales, prices drop

Fort McMurray's once-hot housing market has also taken a hit. For sale signs dot residential streets and have become much more frequent — particularly in a new subdivision recently built in the north end of the city.

Home sales are down, but prices remain high in Fort McMurray. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

According to the Fort McMurray Real Estate Board, sales of single-family detached homes in 2015 were down roughly 41 per cent compared to 2014, and the houses that are selling are going for less. The average sale price has dropped more than six per cent over the same period — but price tags in the area are still sizable. Recent figures from the real estate board put the average price of a detached home around $700,000.

On the rental side, the vacancy rate has risen to nearly 30 per cent, but the cost of renting in Fort McMurray is still the highest in Alberta, which makes it difficult for those who have lost their jobs, or have had their hours cut, to get by.

'Highly competitive'

Mark Mullin, a welder, said he finds himself doing odd jobs where he can. He's become a regular at the Alberta Works employment centre in the city, where up to 400 people visit the office every day. Some meet with counsellors for career advice, but Mullin was one of the many last week who were seated behind a computer and huddled around a bulletin board looking at job listings.

Former heavy duty mechanic John Javier hopes to replace his coveralls with khakis and work as a waiter at a local restaurant. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

"It's a highly competitive racket," he said.

Mullin had been working at Syncrude's Aurora site, but his last contract ended in late October. He hasn't been able to find anything stable since. He's been doing odd jobs to "keep the wolf away" but hasn't had much luck.

"You can't be too fussy about your line of work anymore."  

The people seated around him were in agreement, including John Javier, who used to work as a heavy-duty mechanic, but was laid off last month. That morning, he'd had an interview at an Earls restaurant for a job as a server and laughed at his potential career change.  

"I told them I would trade my coveralls for like a nice blazer, khakis or maybe a clean pair of clothes, instead of dirty coveralls for a change."

The current slump is Javier's first experience with an oilpatch downturn — he just moved to Fort McMurray from Toronto last year.

Mullin, on the other hand, has worked in Fort McMurray for 40 years.

"This isn't the first oil slump on record, and people seem to grin and bear it. So we get through it."   


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