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Canadian Oil Draws World-Wide Mix of Workers

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays we focus on the workplace, and this workplace is an energy boomtown.

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A Canadian newspaper declared last year, if you have a pulse, you can work in Fort McMurray. The headline referred to an Alberta boomtown. Workers from around the globe earn six-figure salaries to mine some of the world's largest oil reserves.

It is one of two places we'll report on this morning where you can see the world's growing demand for energy. In Fort McMurray businesses are scrambling to find more than oil workers. They need waiters, clerks, and nannies - and they're looking as far away as Asia.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Fort McMurray's population is 65,000, but it has the energy of a city several times its size.

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LANGFITT: More than two dozen jets zoom in and out of its small airport each day. On payday, workers arrive by bus to risk some of their hefty earnings at the city's Boom Town Casino. Public gatherings are decidedly international. At last month's Heritage Day Festival, the most popular cuisine was Filipino barbeque, served by Filipino nannies, who come from half a world away.

Washing pans afterward, the nannies explain why they have traded the heat of Southeast Asia for Fort McMurray's bitter winters, where the temperature can drop to 40 below.

Arlina Abaad(ph) was working in Hong Kong when a nanny agency told her she was headed to a city she'd never heard of.

Ms. ARLINA ABAAD (Nanny): And they said, you know, you're going to take a plane. And it's going to take a day. Oh! That's really far! I really wanted to work somewhere like in Toronto or Ontario. But my employer chooses me here, and I have to grab it.

LANGFITT: Most people come to Fort McMurray for high paying jobs in the oil sands. That leaves many service positions grossly understaffed. It also means opportunity for foreign workers like Abaad. She takes care of three children, earning about $16,000 a year U.S., plus room and board. That may not sound like much, but it's a lot more than she made in Hong Kong.

And Abaad says the working conditions here are better too.

Ms. ABAAD: You only have to work for specific times. Like, in Hong Kong, that, you have to work from sunup to sundown. If the employer stays away until midnight, you have to be up until midnight too.

LANGFITT: The labor shortage is squeezing small businesses. At restaurants, annual turnover is about 150 percent. Today at Moxie's(ph), a local grill, owner Andy Parker(ph) is giving an orientation to new workers.

Mr. ANDY PARKER (Owner, Moxie's Restaurant): You're the ambassadors to this building. I am one guy. I can't talk to every single guest in this building.

LANGFITT: Parker says he can't compete with wages in the oil sands.

Mr. PARKER: We have contractors that, they come in for lunch and they offer a server $25 an hour to go be a spark watcher. You know, all they do is stand there and watch a welder for $25 bucks an hour. There are so many jobs I didn't know existed in this city that pay extremely well.

LANGFITT: So earlier this year, Parker tried to create stability in his restaurant by hiring ten kitchen staff from Sri Lanka. He got the cooks through a Canadian agency. They earn $11.50 an hour, and have agreed to stay with Moxie's for three years. Parker says they're making a big difference.

Mr. PARKER: When you have a core base like we do now of these guys from Sri Lanka in the kitchen, then they show up every single day. They work hard, they're happy to be here. And that rubs off on everybody else.

LANGFITT: Sangeya Mongolagamo(ph) worked at a Hilton in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. After the tsunami, he saw a newspaper ad for jobs in Canada. He moved here about five months ago.

Mr. SANGEYA MONGOLAGAMO (Moved to Fort McMurray): So far, it's so good for me. Back home I made about $200 per month. After tsunami the tourism was going down. I thank that I will guard this opportunity.

LANGFITT: Now he makes $700 to $800 a month. He says the work here is a lot easier than back home.

Mr. MONGOLAGAMO: Working in a Sri Lankan or Delhian(ph) restaurant in Canada is completely different. Here it's already made things. When you get a pizza in Sri Lanka I will be making the pizza dough and everything, so it's about two hours. Here it's readymade, so it's very easy to work here.

LANGFITT: And staff like Sangeya have made Andy Parker's work easier too. Moxie's owner says he's so pleased with his new employees he's applied for 15 more from Sri Lanka. He'll employ them at a restaurant he owns in Grand Prairie, another Alberta boomtown.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can go see the oil sands operations for yourself, take a video tour, and hear part one of this report, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.