Oil Sands Jobs

Canada’s oil sands deposits contain over 170 billion barrels of economically viable oil. Canada's oil sands industry produces approximately one million barrels of oil per day. By 2020, production is expected to grow to almost four million barrels per day, with potential for 100 years of mining. Bitumen, the oil in oil sands, is a very dense oil that does not flow in its natural state. It must be processed or upgraded to resemble light crude oil. The oil sands are owned by Canadian citizens through their governments. Companies buy rights to access the resource, paying royalties on production to the Canadian government.

Oil Sands Heavy Equipment

The 797B can haul approximately 360 tons of oil sands. That's nearly 900 tons of weight rolling around the mine.
The 797B can haul approximately 360 tons of oil sands. That's nearly 900 tons of weight rolling around the mine.

While Fort McMurray is famous for its heavy equipment operators, shovel operators, heavy equipment mechanics, and other mine related "blue collar" jobs, there is a substantial number of professional and white collar jobs available. With a growing oil sands industry and city, the support services, the food and beverage, health services, personal finances and the real estate industries are growing; not to mention Fort McMurray's municipal government. All of these industries and institutions are growing rapidly in order to accommodate the influx of workers for the oil sands industry.

A beautiful day in Oil Country

Alberta has three areas of oil sands deposits. The largest is near Fort McMurray but there are two others near Peace River and Cold Lake. Within these regions there are 20 active mining and in-situ oil sands projects. Surface mining is when the bitumen deposits are close to the surface, and in the case of oil sands attached to the sands. Heavy trucks and shovels are used in the mining process to get the sands. It is in processing facilities that hot water separates the bitumen from the sands. Only 20 per cent of all oil sands is close enough to the surface to be mined economically. In situ projects use techniques similar to conventional oil production in order to get the oil deep underground. Advanced drilling technology is used. Steam or solvents are injected into the reservoirs to mobilize the thick bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface through wells. Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) uses parallel pairs of horizontal wells, one drilled for steam injection and one for oil recovery.

 As oil sands industry jobs (high paying, with great benefits) become available, those within the city are the first to see and apply to these jobs, often opening space up in the supporting industries they've just left. Thus, there are so many jobs available - not only for blue collar workers but also for professionals and white collar workers. Even students are paid well.

Students can get work in Fort McMurray's fast food industry easily. McDonald's is always hiring at wages starting from $13-15/hr. Tim Horton's also starts at $15/hr. In the hospitality industry, servers are paid wages of $9/hr plus tip - usually coming to $18-40/hr depending on the restaurant and whether you work in the restaurant dining room or lounge. Even the retail industry pays well - $14-$16/hr to start. Clerical positions in the city can start at $20-$30/hr, depending on the company/business. Some clerical positions in the municipal government start at $26/hr. Janitorial work pays well also. Denesoline Environemental Janitorial Division, hired by oil sands companies, pays its janitors $25/hr.

In the medical/health services industry, there are many dental assistant positions available. Pharmacy jobs are also in demand. Registered Nurses are also currently being hired by Fort McMurray's Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. There are even executive positions available for different companies or the government - including Director of Mining, Director of Business Development and Director, Estimating.

The advantage of working in Fort McMurray is that once you get in the company, it is often faster to get a higher position within that company than if you worked in any other city for the same amount of time. For example, an assistant manager in the retail industry can work a few months and be promoted quickly because the previous manager has left for a higher paying position or has been promoted to a higher paying position him/herself. The advantage of this is that you can work in Fort McMurray just a few years to obtain experience and return to the city you came from, say Toronto, and apply to management positions you never would have dreamed of had you stayed in Toronto those few years instead of working in Fort McMurray.

The only problem that comes with these extremely high wages/salaries is that when you get used to it, you may have trouble liking your pay when you go back to your native city.

Before Deciding to Come to Fort McMurray Consider the Cost of Living

Currently, with the economy in a downturn, the cost of living has slightly decreased in Fort McMurray. The major cause of decrease is the real estate. While still high, it has gone down significantly. Take a house that may have cost $600 000 in 2008, it would currently sell at $520 000. While that's $80 000 in "savings" if you buy this year, buying a house at that price in say Toronto provides you a good location (ie. Kingston Rd, Toronto East), 3+1 bedrooms, and 2 bathrooms. The same $520 000 in Fort McMurray buys you maybe 1600 sq feet of space in a 40 year old house that has been court ordered to go on sale. In 2008, mobile homes and 1-2 bedroom condos sold at $420 000, and this was a good price. Now, they sell for $380 000, plus condo fees for some locations.

But, the cost of living is high not just because of real estate, because it is a huge part, but also because of the cost of goods - grocery, necessities and other material items. Produce is often very expensive unless you catch a sale. Romaine lettuce can go for $1.65 out of season to $0.89 on sale. Fruits, especially exotic fruit, are rare and expensive - you can buy a starfruit for $2.59 each, or mangoes for $1.29 each (the small kind.) When not in season, peaches and nectarines are $2.49/lb, and grapes nearly the same per pound. Meat can also be expensive, especially chicken, seafood and specialty meats. Even beef can seem expensive despite the fact that we're in Alberta.


The cost to transport goods, labour and commercial real estate causes the higher prices. Thus, while you may be making a more than decent salary, it costs a lot to live in Fort McMurray. There are a few ways, the government and businesses help, however. For example, there is a Northern Living Allowance that you can deduct when it comes to tax time - this deduction is provided because Fort McMurray is located in a northern climate region. There is also a Northern Travel Allowance that provides deductions for travelling out of the northern region. Municipal government jobs tend to provide the highest Northern Travel Allowance. For example, a $50 000 income would give you $6000 in Northern Travel Allowance (this $6000 can go towards to trips out of the northern region.) Many oil sands companies include a travel allowance that is added to the salary of employees. Because, they can be travelling for 45 minutes to 2 hours, the allowance is provided to compensate employees' long travel time to work.

Thus, there are many things to consider before making the move here. It is worth it if you are young, and starting your career - with no baggage or family to leave or have to take with you. It's just hard to leave your home and the comfort of friends and family to go to city where you may not know anyone. Then again, this might be a fresh start for you.

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Comments 1 comment

John 3 years ago

Hi Deb,

Thanks for this informative article.

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