Oilsands boys and their toys

Young workers make big money fast, and spend it just as quickly
Riley Brandt

Driving down a dirt road though boreal forest just south of Fort McMurray, we stop dead in front of a concrete barrier on the side of the road. On the other side of the marker is a group of about 10 guys and one lone gal on quads, ripping up a muddy open area with high jumps at the back, concealed by forest.

Kevin Paquet drives up within inches of my foot, and takes off his helmet to reveal the dirty, tanned red face of a young man who works outdoors, slick with sweat from the jump he just completed. He’s here from Quebec City, working as a hydro vac operator in the oilsands and in residential construction. He’s returned home once already, and probably will again. The 22-year-old isn’t bored exactly; it’s just a different kind of lifestyle.

“I work pretty much all the time,” he says.

His work buddy, Jeremy Landry from Wainwright, Alta., adds there’s not much else to do — except maybe drinking. Landry’s only staying in Fort McMurray until he can pay off his debts. That’s $7,000 for his yellow quad, $10,000 for his snowmobile, $40,000 for his Mustang, and $76,000 for his truck. He’s been in Fort McMurray for four years.

After days of touring around streets packed with white work trucks jacked high above the ground with big toys in the back, Landry’s collection of wheels isn’t surprising. Almost everyone owns a quad, a dirt bike, or a snowmobile.

Salaries in Fort McMurray are, of course, part of the reason for these lavish recreational habits. In 2005, Statistics Canada reported the Fort’s median income as $124,592 a year; the median for the rest of the province is $73,823.

The reason most of these predominantly young men are in Fort McMurray is the money. They are here for a short period of hard work and fortune building.

Take 19-year-old Brad McDonald. He’s been in town for one month and already knows he’s leaving. He’s actually hoping to retire back home in Nova Scotia as quickly as possible.

“Everyone comes to Fort McMurray with a five-year plan,” says Colleen Tatum, owner of MXC Racing and Off-Road Shop. She sold many of these young men their quads and snowmobiles. She knows how much they spent on accessories for their trucks, and she knows that many of them will opt to stay in town, whatever their plans. “Most people come and buy a truck,” she says, “and then they buy the accessories, and a quad, so there’s not much (money) left over to go back with.”

The situation is so common that a financial advisor in Ontario has caught on and is targeting young people in Fort McMurray with an “Exit Strategy” financial plan. Sparked by the experiences his own brother-in-law had while working in Fort McMurray, Falk Hampel, a German immigrant living in Sarnia, posted an Internet ad aimed at the young workers who want to save enough to go home.

“Those guys are hard workers,” he says, “but they are not really financial planners.”

So Hampel offers them basic investing advice and helps with budgeting. People in their 20s, especially those who are willing to move across the country for a labour job, don’t have a realistic concept of what $100,000 really represents, or what it can do for them. That’s how they get in trouble with expensive items like quads, he says.

“Those five-year plans don’t work,” he says, “and it has a lot to do with financial planning.”

When the exit plan does work out, young people leaving the oilsands can find themselves well ahead of the curve.

On the next night at the same site down the dirt road, a group of Newfoundlanders are trying out Dwayne Angell’s new dirt bike and enjoying a small tailgate party.

Shannon Rideout, a 26-year-old construction worker from Summerford, Nfld., drinks a can of Coors Light and talks about heading into Edmonton to get a large tattoo on his chest. Angell ribs him about shaving his chest later that night.

Even given little extravagances like a road trip for body art, he’s saved enough to buy a house in Edmonton. After living in Fort McMurray for 10 years, and working for most of that time, he can’t wait to leave.

His friends aren’t taking him seriously, though, and joke that he won’t make it out. But he’s determined, and lowering his voice, leaning in so close I can see his blond eyelashes, he repeats: “Within a month.”

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