Voting with their feet: Workers head north to the oil fields

By Laura Stovel

If people vote with their feet, workers heading north from Revelstoke to work on the oil fields and pipelines of Alberta may expose not only economic opportunity up north, but also strains within certain industries and Revelstoke’s general economy. Paramedics, logging truck drivers and tradespeople are among those travelling north, attracted by plentiful and well-paying jobs.

Young people, just starting out in their careers, may be the most mobile, but some wage earners with families also leave to work up north, leaving their loved ones in Revelstoke.

For one family, working in and around the oil fields is a family affair. The first to leave was 25-year-old Kyle Beattie who left for the oil field in Brooks, Alberta, in 2005, shortly after he graduated from high school. In early 2010, his younger sister, Kahleigh headed to Grand Prairie for work, followed by their mother Debbie, and later their father, Ed.

Kahleigh Beattie was a newly trained paramedic when she took her first job up north. BC Ambulance Service workers went on strike just as she was finishing her primary care paramedic training at the Justice Institute. This prevented her from doing the practicum she needed to work here so she headed to Grand Prairie, where her brother, Kyle, has a house.

“It was all very quick,” she said. “When I went, I didn’t necessarily have a job. I was put through an orientation and after that I was working right away.”

“Nothing happens slowly and nothing is ever planned,” she said. “I can finish a job one day, be told that I’ll be off for a while, and then be called in the next day. It’s so much easier to find a job where the industries are busier. Everyone is always looking for people.”

Kaleigh, who graduated from high school in 2007, says that five to six people in her graduating class are also working up north: “two girls are medics; three guys are on the rigs in roughneck jobs.”

Debbie Beattie was an assisted living worker at Moberly Manor who was frustrated with changing working conditions for health care workers and was looking for something else. She took a third-level Occupational First Aid course and met a classmate who was going to Grand Prairie to work. Debbie decided to try her luck and was soon working as a health care attendant in a camp.

Debbie says that while she doesn’t “particularly like living away from home,” she really likes camp life. Not only is she paid “more than the highest-paid care aid” in Revelstoke, but she finds camp to be “a lot like a large family” or “summer camp.” There are usually about 20 people in camp at one time, she said. The food is good, the people are great – they play practical jokes on each other.

Most camps, like her camp, are dry. The roads are all company owned, the vehicles are company owned, and employees don’t carry banned substances in.

For Ed Beattie, who drove logging trucks for more than 30 years in Revelstoke, the move north for work reflects a strain in the logging industry. “I gave up on the logging industry because I got tired of living from pay cheque to pay cheque,” he said. “Mills don’t pay the contractors enough to pay their employees. Contractors are just getting enough to make a living” and some “have gone under because they can’t make it.” Beattie started working as a driver in 1978. “Back then, drivers were making as much as they are today. Somebody’s making money and it’s not the workers.”

Ed said he knows four other drivers that have gone north to work. He now hauls sand with a Super B (a highway truck with two trailers), working six weeks on and two weeks off. He expects that he will continue doing this until he retires “because I can’t see things picking up here.” Simply put, “the oil patch is paying better than the logging patch.”

Kaleigh, Debbie and Ed Beattie all consider Revelstoke to be home and know that working up north is not ideal. “I would prefer not to live in Northern Alberta,”Kaleigh said, “but I can’t make the same money her and the same kind of work is not necessarily available to me” in Revelstoke. Her mother agrees. “It has to be a big enough compensation to make working up north worthwhile,” she said.

For Susie Cameron, however, moving north to work as a paramedic in the Shell Battery Plant in Peace River is probably the first step toward moving out of town completely. “I left February 9th.  I had a few days of training with the paramedic company that hired me, a few days of training on site and then I was on my own.”

Cameron says she loves her work. Not only is the pay much better than she could earn in Revelstoke, she is guaranteed two weeks on and two weeks off a month. “It’s a pretty cushy camp,” she said, with about 16 workers there at a time. “The food is great and the guys are excellent.” They are “laid back and respect what you do.”

Cameron said she went up north because she was worried about her pension.  Working for BC Ambulance Services in Sicamous did not provide enough pensionable income. “When we’re on call, we get $2 an hour; at the station we get $11.12 an hour – they call it a stipend.” Only the hours on active duty are pensionable. “It’s a joke,” she said. “I’m 50 and I need to make a pension.”

In February, Okanagan College in Revelstoke offered a series of courses to prepare people to work in the oil fields, reflecting a continued demand in town for work up north.  While housing costs and other basic expenses have risen dramatically in recent years, wages have not kept up. In the 2011 updated edition of the Revelstoke Community Action Plan, Social Development Coordinator Jill Zaccharias wrote that “For some employers it is difficult to pay a ‘living wage’ that keeps pace with the rising cost of living and higher paying jobs elsewhere. 66% of (the) 2007 community survey respondents listed higher wages as the primary reason they or someone they knew has or is working out-of-town rather than in Revelstoke.” (See )

Will a growing number of people – both young people seeking a meaningful career and older workers needing to think about pensions – join these workers? If so, what will be impact be, both socially and economically, on our community? I guess we’ll find out.