Energy Work in Canada

A 100-year-old Canadian surveying firm is recruiting workers from the United States, especially for its oil industry projects. Details on its recruitment process reveal how U.S. surveyors may be able to find work north of the border. 

People seeking work in the 1850s were told, “Go west, young man.” But these days the direction is north for some struggling U.S. surveyors who are being hired for projects in Canada, particularly projects involving the oil industry. One company networking with U.S. state surveying associations to recruit help is McElhanney Land Surveys Ltd., with six branch offices, including offices in Calgary and Edmonton.

The continuing expansion of oil operations in Alberta especially has increased work for McElhanney.  “In growing our pool of qualified personnel, we have found that the demand for geomatics professionals and land surveyors exceeds the local supply,” said Lauren Isherwood-Baingo, McElhanney’s human resources advisor for recruitment.

“We have identified the United States as an excellent market for sourcing quality personnel due to the number of institutions offering geomatics education and training, the geographic proximity of the United States to Canada, and the similarities of the technology and equipment used in the United States and Canada,” Isherwood-Baingo said.

“From the feedback that we have received from our U.S. candidates and the state surveyors’ associations, we understand that the U.S. economy continues to weather the recession and that there is insufficient work for land surveyors in certain areas. We have also been told that much of the available work is only contract work, which is not necessarily sufficient to sustain full-time hours. These factors, coupled with the portability of U.S. professionals under the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA], make it attractive for us to recruit American surveyors,” she said.

The private company, wholly owned and managed by a group of senior employees, has been servicing western Canada’s resource sector since 1910 by providing land survey and mapping services to support the construction of well sites, access roads, pipelines, and plant sites. It launched the international recruitment initiative in the past several months, and already foreign workers are either on the job or in various stages of the hiring process.

The benefits of cross-border hiring are win-win, Isherwood-Baingo said, “because we are assured of getting a quality candidate with relevant education and training, and the surveyor is able to secure a stable job in his or her profession of choice with an industry-leading company.”

One such hire is Stefan Laufer, PLS, who has been surveying in Washington State and Alaska for the past 20 years. Last September he found himself “facing the prospect of having to file for unemployment for the first time” until a friend’s email told him about jobs with McElhanney.

He says, “I am now happily employed in Edmonton, commuting back to Bellingham, Washington, every nine days for a five-day break … With the U.S. economy still in the dumps, I was very relieved to have been given this opportunity. I’ve met some great people and, even after only a few months, believe I have expanded my knowledge base in the field.”

A large portion of Laufer’s work is in the Alberta Oil Sands, an area with a mixture of sand, water, and bitumen, a type of heavy and extremely viscous oil. The mixture must be treated before refineries can use it to produce fuels such as gasoline and diesel.

While this work is similar to what he did in the United States, Laufer said an initial glitch was that he “needed to readjust to the metric system. I’ve been working in the imperial system in the United States for many years and found that switching back to being able to visualize in metrics again was tricky. But after a few days, it all clicked again.”

Laufer said his salary is comparable to what he was earning in the United States, but he urged colleagues to “be prepared for a bit of sticker shock when faced with Canadian taxes. These tend to up the prices on everything. If you are not a resident you cannot take advantage of some of the great services these taxes provide, such as the Canadian healthcare system.”

Getting Started

For U.S. land surveyors to work in Canada, “it is necessary that they meet the requirements governing professional workers under NAFTA,” said Isherwood-Baingo. “According to NAFTA regulations, a U.S. surveyor must hold either a bachelor’s degree from an American university or a state surveyor’s license. If a U.S. surveyor meets these requirements, McElhanney is able to hire them to work in Canada as a party chief.”

For U.S. surveyors wanting to permanently relocate to Canada, she said, the company also offers assistance with the immigration process and the subsequent application for permanent residency.

Laufer said the company was “incredibly accommodating in getting all the paperwork in order. [Although] we had lots of back-and-forth conversations on the phone, once I received the paperwork, which was on a Friday, I was ready to go on Monday.  Paperwork took about 30 minutes to process at the border, and then I was on my way. My only words of advice are to check and double check the list McElhanney provides with details on all the necessary documents you must have to cross.  If you are missing one, you could be stuck at the border for much longer.”

Another McElhanney hire is Leasmy Colon Irizarry, PLS, originally from Puerto Rico and recently working in Illinois. He said he had been laid off from a company that didn’t have enough work and had “spent 13 months on hold” waiting for the situation to change before deciding to try “our neighbor to the north.”

“They helped me from the beginning,” Irizarry said of McElhanney. “I need to say that I was scared at the time that I went to the Canadian border station, but the McElhanney staff did a great job, and it only took a few minutes to cross.”

Irizarry said he is pleased with his decision to find work over the border, and recently a colleague from Puerto Rico also joined him. Furthermore, his wife is a land surveyor who also hopes to call McElhanney home.

Although traveling to Canada may seem like an extreme measure, many of us have had to make difficult decisions in these difficult times. It does seem a better alternative than unemployment or, worse yet, leaving the profession, possibly to take lower paying work and/or a job that doesn’t make use of your years of training.

It is interesting to note how surveying for energy is increasingly becoming the replacement for surveying for construction in North America. If you do decide to take advantage of this opportunity, contact McElhanney Land Surveys Ltd. directly and research similar Canadian firms. Dress warm and know that our thoughts are with you. 

About the Author

  • Nancy Luse, Assistant Editor
    Nancy is a freelance writer in Frederick, Maryland.

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