Going Mobile: Chasing Independence

Rachel is a 28-year-old ironworker. Born and raised in Edmonton, Rachel grew up around many family members who had spent their lives working in various trades. Their jobs often required them to take up contract work and to be away from home for long periods at a time. The examples set by her family were important in shaping her understanding of work and career aspirations, but it certainly wasn’t a straight path into the trades for Rachel.

Despite a sort of “family DNA” in the sector, Rachel didn’t have it in her initial plans to work in the oil sands or in anything trade related. Rather than following the example of her family she decided to enrol into the University of Alberta’s anthropology program. Initially supported financially by her parents, the situation changed quickly after the end of her first year with her father suffering an injury on the job and her mother deciding to take time off to help in his recovery. This turn of events left Rachel in a difficult position not only on a personal level but also with her studies.


On the advice of a friend who had worked in the oil patch for a while, Rachel decided to look for work as a general kitchen helper at a camp in the oil sands. This initial experience was eye opening, and it took some time to adjust, but Rachel soon took to the excitement of the workplace. She had always held some interest in tradework because of her family, and being on site only furthered the curiosity, especially in the face of a less than secure future after her curtailed university studies. Despite some warnings about the difficulties she would face as a woman, by the end of the summer Rachel had made up her mind to pursue training as an ironworker, with the goal of working in the oil industry.

Camp: Routine, Routine, Routine

When Rachel decided to pursue the oil sands opportunity she knew she’d have to learn how to survive (and thrive) in camp if she was going to succeed. She’d heard some horror stories of different camp situations but ultimately understood that camp would be a key part of her work life going forward. She has not had any major incidents while in camp but she accepts that it is not the most comfortable space for a woman to be in. Not unlike when she’s on the job, Rachel draws on her experiences growing up around mostly male family members and makes sure that no one doubts her toughness. She socializes pretty easily with the other members of her crew when she’s in camp and it has helped build her reputation and trust, something which also makes camp life feel a bit more safe.

Despite the importance of socializing, Rachel also makes sure that she establishes an organized and well kept routine while in camp. Workers don’t end up spending too much time in the camps, for better or for worse, but the rotational nature of her work makes camp life important for getting proper rest and ensuring that she’s on time and prepared for her next shift. The bulk of camp life comes down to sleeping and eating meals but the details are important and every worker has different tricks and tips for surviving camp. In her own routine she likes to keep it simple, maybe watching a quick TV show after a long shift but otherwise trying to make sure she gets enough sleep for the next day. Beyond the day to day routine, part of the key for Rachel is just making sure that everything gets put in order early upon arrival at camp.

The stories from her relatives who worked in the oil sands often used to circle around the mundane – things they ate, working out, sleep habits – and she could never quite appreciate it. Now, having hopped between several camps, Rachel is thankful when she lands at one of the nicer ones, where the otherwise mundane is less noticeably so.

Work: Physical and Mental Health

When it comes to work for Rachel, it is not unlike many other stories from the oil sands, with long shifts of 10 hours, intense periods of work, and shifting schedules. Rachel takes great pride in being an ironworker, and doesn’t particularly like it when people try to bring up her gender in the workforce, though she’s not afraid to push back strategically and show that women can not only be “in” these fields but they can also lead them. When given the opportunity, Rachel has jumped at the chance to work for more established and respected companies as well as taking on riskier tasks that male coworkers often doubt she or other women can do. There’s a general air of skepticism from her male counterparts regarding women in the trades yet with all the criticism about their qualifications for the job, Rachel usually notices less support when women raise practical issues on the job.

Rachel’s short time in university helped her develop a discipline that could help her cut out the distractions, like the gossipy behaviour of her male co-workers. So while the intensity of work could build up, she was generally good at keeping her cool and just getting to the next day. She knew enough about the workplace beforehand to know that there was a certain culture of earning respect in the oil sands and she did her best to maneuver her way and fit in despite dismissive or difficult encounters. There were small moments, like when gloves and other safety gear weren’t available in smaller sizes, as well as more challenging moments where her male counterparts refused to work with her based on her gender. Dealing with machinery is not as big of a problem for Rachel as it is for other women she knows in the oil sands, but the workplace still isn’t made for female workers. While being single meant she didn’t have to worry as much about the impact of her busy schedule on kids or partners, it also meant she was often the target of crude comments in the workplace.

Many of Rachel’s male coworkers, especially the single ones, still don’t understand the particular issues that women face while working in the trades and in the oil sands. There are no easy jobs in the oil sands and this can be made even harder when you’re having to go through your period or in the case of pregnant women who sometimes stay on the job well up to their due date. Rachel doesn’t use these experiences as an excuse for softer treatment but she does get bothered by the continued assumptions of many male workers who question the toughness of their female colleagues. She has worked hard to establish a strong reputation amongst her peers but wishes there would be more practical support for the different experiences of male and female workers. Beyond colleague misunderstandings, the most frustrating thing is when supervisors or upper management are dismissive of health and safety concerns faced by women.

One of the biggest issues Rachel has encountered, for both men and women, has been around mental health. She has seen co-workers hit hard by depression who were known for their workplace toughness, and she has seen people close to her hit their lowest points, particularly in the aftermath of the downturn. Mental health was not something she was told much about before she started working in the industry but it is one of the biggest consequences of dealing with this type of work. In Rachel’s case she has moved up enough and developed a good enough reputation that she feels fairly at ease with the idea of finding work, however there is always a chance that the work will run out or something might happen. It is a high stress environment and Rachel has often become the confidante for workers in different sites who have found it difficult to talk about their mental health.

Despite the issues, Rachel takes a great deal of pride in the work that she does and enjoys the challenge of showing people that she can do the job just as well as, or even better than, anyone else.

Work-Family Relations: Gender and Generations

Another often overlooked work dynamic that Rachel has encountered while in Fort Mac is the effect of her work schedule on family, friends and relationships. Coming into the oil sands she knew that the transition would be different from what she’d faced in a few past experiences as an apprentice. The demands and the rigours of the companies are intensified and it makes it hard to focus on anything other than surviving camp. It helped a lot that Rachel grew up as a bit of a tomboy and so could fit in pretty seamlessly with the mostly masculine work environment, but it still wasn’t easy to be far from friends and family. She learned how to fit in and socialize quickly with her crewmates, in part to make the work more bearable and also to have a bit more security while in camp. Over time she found more genuine friendships but even then it was difficult to maintain them as people came in and out of jobs.

When it came to more personal relationships, Rachel also quickly realized that she had to be careful about how her interactions with coworkers might be perceived and understood. Rumours were known to spread around the workplace, and with women the minority amongst her co-workers, it often seemed a risk to get involved with any sort of workplace relationship. It was a difficult position to be in at times in terms of needing to be on good terms with co-workers while also balancing the potential for gossip. Rachel has mostly been single during her time in the oil sands and the workplace gossip is one of the negative aspects she deals with as a result of that however the lack of family obligations has also helped with the instability of her job. She still thinks about starting a family one day but finds it tough to imagine while still in the oil sands. Having fewer obligations has allowed her to latch on to new opportunities in the workplace quicker and for now she finds it hard enough to just keep in touch with her parents and friends back home.

Exiting: Navigating Challenges

This is Rachel’s outlook as she heads into the next phase of her life, having learned to navigate the various dynamics and challenges posed by work in the oil sands. While she’s grown to enjoy her job and would like to continue working there, she still won’t shut the door on future career changes, especially having seen how quick things can change in her profession. She has thought about bolstering her education in order to open herself up to other job opportunities within the industry and doesn’t want to limit herself to pursuing jobs just in Alberta. Her preference would be stay in the province and try to build a more stable life but she also sees the opportunity that mobile work has given her to further her career on her own terms. Wherever she goes, she feels that her time in the oil sands has given her a new level of resiliency while also making clear that there is work to do in addressing the gendered dynamics of the workforce.

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