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Recruiting skilled workers in remote regions

December 15, 2022
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A career in Heavy Equipment Maintenance provides benefits and growth opportunities that few industries can match. However, finding candidates to join the trades has been a significant challenge, particularly in the oilsands and other remote regions where much of Canada's mining occurs. 

Jessica Hetherington is SMS Equipment's Human Resources Manager for Fort McMurray. In this issue of Experts' Corner, Jessica explains how SMS Equipment is working with our mining partners, local organizations, and the community to build a pipeline of qualified candidates.

What's the situation right now for hiring technicians in Fort McMurray?

Jessica: Getting skilled workers is difficult in any industry right now, and attracting workers to the oilsands is tough. We offer a ton of training and all kinds of advancement and growth opportunities, but it's still challenging to find people who want to become technicians that work on mining equipment.

What kinds of people are you looking for?

Jessica: Ideally, we'd like to find someone with experience in the equipment we sell and service. Mining equipment has unique skill requirements because it's much larger than the heavy equipment used in other industries. We used to require three to five years on mining-size equipment, but that's gotten increasingly challenging. Now, we look for people with their tickets and a good attitude. Our candidates today typically have experience with semi trucks, smaller construction equipment, or agricultural equipment and then train them to work on larger equipment. 

What do people find interesting about this kind of work?

Jessica: I think that what people find remarkable is the size of the equipment. There's something pretty exciting about building, repairing, and remanufacturing trucks that are as big as two-storey buildings. They will work on some of the world's most giant trucks and shovels. 

Our technicians also have many choices on the type of equipment they work on. We offer the opportunity to work on shovels, dozers, or haul trucks, and if you've worked in the shovel shop for a few years and want to move to haul trucks, you can make that change. We also have both shop-based and field-based work. 


What are some of the initiatives for finding recruits?

Jessica: We do this through several channels. We use a third-party recruiting firm to attract candidates who wouldn't usually reply to an ad. We've have increased our advertising and job fair participation over the past year to increase brand exposure. We also participate in a task force committee with Suncor and some of their key suppliers. We are collectively finding ways to recruit people for opportunities in the oilsands. Suncor knows their suppliers need strong recruitment, so when we succeed, that's a win-win. 

Lastly, we have partnered with Keyano College, the local community college in Fort McMurray, in their Heavy Equipment Technician apprenticeship program, which provides a 3-year off-road certificate. To make that more accessible, we've introduced a pre-employment program, where a candidate can enter the program's first year without already having a job. The program has opened the door for people who want to join the trades – it's encouraged more women and broadened the candidate pool. 
We have 18 students in the program now, and they're guaranteed jobs when they graduate. 

What kind of support do you provide for new employees?

Jessica: We do a lot of training, either through the Keyano College apprenticeship program, or helping people get used to working on very large equipment, so that's part of our DNA. 

We have a lot of new employees right now, so we're encouraging our more experienced technicians to take some of the green hardhats, as we call them, under their wing. It's not just technical things - an essential part of this is letting them know that we have a culture of asking questions and pushing back if you're uncomfortable. That's a consistent message that we reinforce at all levels. 

We also provide more advanced training for employees once they've learned the basics. We have an internal certified technician program that we put our techs through, and that's very well received. It includes training specific to our product lines. People who work on mechanical equipment like to know what they're doing, so we ensure we support them.

What efforts do you undertake to ensure diversity? 

Jessica: Diversity is something we emphasize a lot at SMS Equipment. Getting more women to join the trades has been a big priority. We have a process to ensure we fully consider any incoming resumes. Unfortunately, a program we were involved in got cancelled because of COVID, but we're working on other alternatives. 

We also have an ongoing strategic alliance with Fort McMurray First Nations band. We communicate our vacancies to their organizations, and if they have a band member interested in a role, they send the resume to me directly. All of the same requirements still have to be met, but we're trying to be more diverse, so we'll ensure that the resumes get full consideration. First Nations organizations also organize job fairs, so we make sure to attend those to be a recognizable employer of choice for any band members looking for work. 

Any last words? 

Jessica: I hope more young people will realize what a great career opportunity this is. It's incredibly well-paid, a career with a future, and we have a great community of people who support each other and build lifelong friendships inside and outside the workplace.

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Jessica Hetherington, Regional Human Resources Manager, welcomes the inaugural cohort of students enrolled in the Heavy Equipment Technician – Pre-Employment Program at Keyano College

SMS Equipment – Fort McMurray, along with our strategic alliance partner Fort McMurray First Nation Group of Companies, was proud to participate in a live tree auction fundraiser on behalf of the beloved Northern Lights Hospital Foundation

SMS Equipment Advanced Certified Technician Clayton Kennon was awarded AED’s inaugural Technician of the Year for Canada

Employees in Fort McMurray proudly support Canada’s Orange Shirt Day initiative
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