Where the Jobs Are


If there is one bright spot in the economy and employment numbers it’s in the energy development field. There are plenty of good paying jobs from the Canadian oil sands to the shale gas in South Texas for people who’ve got the moxie to seek them out.

Take Carrie Sims, pictured here. After more than a decade of working with special needs children, Carrie enrolled in a community college program that teaches students how to operate heavy equipment. In nine months she learned how to operate a dozer, motor grader and a Cat 797 haul truck (using the school’s simulator). After a three-month co-op program with Shell Mining, she was hired full time about six years ago to run equipment at the company’s oil sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

Her first assignment: driving that 797 truck with a 400-ton payload. “It’s intimidating because you’re 20 feet off the ground, but it turned out I loved it,” she says. She’s also put in a lot of hours on the dozer and grader and is training to operate a Hitachi ZX850 excavator.

The heavy equipment work involves taking oil rich sands to the processor, building dykes and moving overburden. Each shift is 12 hours, beginning with an hour-long bus ride to mine. And at the end of each shift, every piece of equipment and the entire mine shuts down for what they call a safety assess, or toolbox talk.

Carrie and her fellow operators work what she calls a 5-5-4 shift, five shifts on, five days off, then four shifts and another five days off. The shifts alternate between days and nights to give operators a full 24 hours off between series.

Girl Untitled 1Although heavy equipment operation is traditionally a male occupation, Carrie is one of just four women in a crew of about 50. “I naturally gravitated to the more senior guys, the guys with more experience,” she says. “They were fabulous. They took me under their wing and had no qualms telling me, ‘You’re not doing this right.’ I didn’t take offense or get upset. I learned from it.”

Her crew is a diverse mix of ages, kids as young as 18 and 19 and people in their 50s. “Its an open field for everyone, Carrie says. “Your co-workers are your family when you’ve been out there 12 hours a day. You look out for them and they look out for you.”

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As for her future, Carrie says she’s found her calling. Operators with a little experience can easily pull down a six-figure annual paycheck. With the good pay she’s been able to buy a house and is saving for early retirement.

The long work hours are balanced by the days off and appeal to people who love the outdoors. The Fort McMurray backcountry area is rich with outdoor recreation, wildlife, deep woods, lakes and rivers. “It’s not what you would think of as a mining town,” she says. “I spend most of my time off fishing. I’m not going anywhere. This is home.”