May 30, 2006

High wages as projects start up, slow down, come with instability

Column: Gimme Some Grammar appeared in Fort McMurray Today May 26, 2006.

By MICHAEL HALL
Today staff

A couple of Wood Buffalo issues have been briefly written about in these pages, but they're like icebergs: most of the potential problems are below the surface, ready to sink the next passing ship.

The pair that I've been thinking about lately are not related, but they matter deeply to many people

Foreign workers and parking.

Strange pair, when you think of it.

I'll deal with jobs first.

Unions in the area have blasted contractors and oilsands plants -- Canadian Natural Resources is at the top of the list -- for inking deals that already have and could bring more non-Canadians to work on oilsands construction projects.

At the same time, Syncrude wrapped up most of the work on its UE-1 upgrader, sending thousands of workers home. Not Fort McMurray, but Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere.

The result, from what I understand, is that many highly skilled workers are sitting around doing nothing.

They became used to the high wages paid by Syncrude and other plants, plus the much cursed $100 per day living-out allowance, or LOA that has caused so much inflation in Fort McMurray.

It's hard to go from $100,000 a year or more to nothing.

There's no question that the construction workforce numbers will shoot up and down in this region as one project finishes and another one starts. There might be gaps between the projects, too.

The result is uncertainty for some businesses in town that depend on the construction workers, and some uncertainty for the unions and the people they represent, too.

One of the tradeoffs for high wages is uncertainty. The pay is good, but it may not be for long.

Many other jobs, it could be argued, do not pay anything near oilsands construction wages, but they have more predictability. Mine is one.

Over the next decade, lots of work must be done here. Many jobs will be up for grabs. Who will fill those jobs is still uncertain, of course.

If I were the CEO of an oilsands plant, I'd want the work done safely, by high-skilled workers, but there would be pressure on the bottom line. If everything else is equal, I'd want to stop paying LOA, for example.

These workers are being paid nowhere near minimum wage. They're in the stratosphere.

The beef seems to be that unions want to protect their territory. They don't want lower-cost competition -- whether it be rival unions or foreign workers.

In the wake of UE-1 idling workers, the problem has been brought to the forefront. One Edmonton commentator said hundreds of workers were sitting at home.

Mark my words, this isn't the last you've heard of this.

* * *

Parking? We're in the middle of nowhere. You'd think it wouldn't be a problem.

It is.

On every street in town, the number of cars, trucks, work vehicles up to semi-trucks and bigger are choking the life out of neighbourhoods.

Apartment complexes are built with enough spaces -- or so they think. But none are prepared for four of five vehicles per unit.

Then there are the complexes that charge extra to renters for parking. Many simply choose to park on nearby streets for free.

There are so many cars and trucks here that people lose track of them. When signs were posted in my neighbourhood to remove vehicles for street cleaning, officials had to tow two before the job was done.

It's more than neighbourhoods, however. Downtown is bursting. I've tried to visit a store downtown on a Saturday afternoon only to be forced to circle the block a couple of times before I could hop out of my vehicle to hand my hard-earned cash over to a local retailer.

Then there's the airport. Work is now underway on a permanent fix, but many air travellers were scrambling this winter when they didn't allow enough time to find a parking place and either just got on or missed getting their flights because they had to walk from a remote lot.

We're bursting at the seams with people and vehicles. I'll bet there are as many cars and trucks here as there are human beings. Maybe more. I won't even begin to count the ATVs, dirt bikes and motorcycles.

They've all got to be parked somewhere.

And we've done little to cope with the four-wheel boom in the last decade, where our population doubled.

What's the answer? Parkades?

Probably.

An extra tax on vehicles (quadrupled for oilsands work trucks brought into town) like the one in London? Maybe.

I don't know what the ultimate answer is.

If you do, please share.

One of the tradeoffs for high wages is uncertainty. The pay is good, but it may not be for long.


© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

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