Devon Bedard, a concrete contractor in Fort McMurray, hasn’t had so many job offers in years.
In April, Bedard, 33, was running a company of one, DB West Contracting, out of his garage with only a few jobs lined up in Parsons Creek. Now, he’s getting phone calls from developers and builders asking about his availability and the status of his equipment. He may need to hire up to seven staff this year. At this pace, he might have to turn down jobs.
“As hard as it is to say this because so many people lost their homes and stuff, this will be good for local companies, the economy and the town,” he says from his parents’ home on Vancouver Island. “Who doesn’t want to be part of rebuilding a whole community?”
When global oil prices collapsed in late 2014, the days of the lucrative construction mega-projects were assumed over. After enduring thousands of layoffs and cancelled or delayed projects, the destruction of 10 per cent of Fort McMurray may be the deus ex machina Alberta’s construction industry needed.
Last week, the Conference Board of Canada estimated the rebuilding effort will add $1.3 billion to Alberta’s economy in 2017, bringing nearly half a percentage point to the province’s overall economic growth.
With approximately 2,400 buildings damaged or destroyed, the think-tank anticipates rebuilding will last into 2019.
“I can see a great few years for our members, even though it may be tough right now,” says Charles Iggulden, president of the Fort McMurray Construction Association. “I think the capability of our members averages at 75 per cent, but maybe more. We’re still assessing everyone’s capabilities, but the news has been largely positive.”
And it’s not just homes that will need replacing. In the days following the evacuation, it was starting to look like Christmas in Edmonton malls as Fort McMurray’s displaced replaced clothes, medications, electronics and anything else left behind.
Once they return, refrigerators packed with rotting food will be thrown out. In homes with heavy smoke damage, the municipality warns all furniture, appliances, clothes and sheets may need to go.
Automotive dealerships will replace vehicles that were incinerated; mechanics will repair vehicles abandoned in the chaos and exposed to the elements.
“This community once built 1,000 to 2,000 homes a year on a regular basis,” says Russell Dauk, the current vice-president of land development with Rohit Land Development and the municipality’s former manager of planning. “We were down to 100 to 200 homes when this happened. Fort McMurray can ramp back up again. It’s not like we’ve never done this before.”
Blueprints for new homes need to be drawn and approved. Thousands of residents need to settle with their insurance providers before any work can begin. Fortunately, some of the work has already been done.
Roads, sidewalks, sewage and plumbing infrastructure are intact with minimal damage and more than 300 serviceable lots in the city are ready for construction. Despite the late start to the construction season, Iggulden believes many homes will be completed by winter.
Developers and construction groups have already started their hiring spree. Both Dauk and Iggulden say wages will rise as companies try to attract workers quickly. Dauk anticipates contractors forced to leave Fort McMurray when oil prices collapsed will ask old employers for jobs. He predicts the construction of 1,000 homes will add 2,000 to Fort McMurray’s labour force, plus countless more spinoff jobs.
While the preference is for local companies to rebuild Fort McMurray, not everyone involved will call the city home, and companies are already recruiting workers from outside the city for help.
Labor Ready, an American-operated company that recruits temporary workers for short-term jobs, has been recruiting workers across the country to fill positions related to construction, demolition, cleanup, security and transportation in Fort McMurray.
In a city where the logistics of a commuting workforce is met with polarizing opinions from oil companies, residents and local politicians, it may be accepted as a necessary evil for rebuilding.
“That’s always going to happen here,” says Bedard. “Companies are giving as much as they can to local guys, but when it gets going, the local guys are going to need the extra help.”
With the oil industry expected to stabilize during the next five years, the halcyon days of oilsands mega-projects will likely not return. Even Dauk doesn’t know what the city will look like once it’s been rebuilt. But like the last boom, this one will end.
“A lot of people won’t come back and not every commuter will decide to settle. Some will. That much we can expect,” he said. “We won’t see anything crazier than what we saw two years ago.”
Wednesday, May 25, 2016/Fort McMurray Today