February 18, 2018 0 Comments Experience Working in Alberta's Oilfield

Bloody February

The public pictures I as a young, fit guy driving nice BMWs and dressing beautifully. It thinks I must pick up many beautiful women and make massive piles of money rising towards the life of a true Baller – living the dream. The reality is very different.

Feast or famine. The way of the oilfield. One moment the streets of oil towns exhibit the might of the oilfield: spooling turbos of large diesel engines, and the smell of diesel exhaust fumes from large lifted diesel pickups and the vast assortment of oilfield equipment. Next moment, what has been once a bristling miniature oilfield metropolis morphs into a pseudo-ghost town as the masses go home with their layoff slips. They cross their fingers that the woman is still there, and won’t suddenly reveal her longtime affair from the ambition-less man she met at the bar but made her feel less lonely. In the light of the gun control debates as of late, we share one joke that holds some truth:

Guns don’t kill people, husbands coming home early do.

On some days I picture myself in my early 30s polishing my Ferrari on my driveway on a quiet, breezy sunny afternoon. My pooch sits beside me – gazing at my movements and wondering when I’ll take her/him for a walk, or walk back inside the house to check how my $1M+ investment portfolio is faring, or to check if any other noteworthy asset acquisition opportunities have appeared. Then after I’ve finished, I park the Ferrari in the garage, take the Porsche 911 daily driver, and cruise down to my 5th rental condo to show it to a potential tenant. If I feel like it, I’ll call one of my truckers to see how the trucks are doing. Maybe take the super-SUV of >=550 horses if I feel like taking the pup along to say Hello and dance to the roaring symphony of the twin-turbocharged 8-cylinder.

On other days, I fear the worst: returned back to BC, indebted, dreams shattered, and bowing down to my competition and doubters. Years later, I’d have failed to collect any more venture capital. Any cash savings have been wiped out by the endless sudden expenses, from rotting teeth and deteriorating health, to condo special assessments. I’d be giving them the reassurance of white-collar, employee-mentality superiority. I’d be letting them rub into my face once again that the limits of prestige are reserved for only the most privileged and lucky. I’d just be another paycheque-to-paycheque renter and debt slave just grateful to have a $50,000/year job after 8+ years of post secondary, just like everyone else.


I’ve worked on pipelines where the commute to one sector has been as much as 3.5-4 hours/day – followed by 12+ hours of work, paid by only a single flat day rate. The roads have been treacherous to drive truck on – narrow, curving, steep, icey hills in fierce snowstorms admist the darkness of night. Many colleagues have destroyed driveshafts, partly hung off the side of bridges, hit ditches, collided with other trucks, and rolled sideways. I’ve spun out so much that tire chains have softened to the likes of bracelets, and eventually broken and its links fly and smash mirrors. Luckily I’ve never had an accident – but many days I wonder how long my body will fight on, when on some days I’d be lucky to sleep 5-6 hours. On some days, I wake up at 5AM – only to receive sudden news I’m not working during the day. Then in the afternoon, I receive an hour notice that I am to work until the following day at 6:30AM, and not get back to camp to sleep until 8. The public pictures I as a young, good looking blonde guy driving nice BMWs and dressing beautifully. It thinks I must pick up many beautiful women and make massive piles of money rising towards the life of a true Baller – living the dream. The reality is very different.

February 2018 is one of the bloody months. January a strong start of $10,911 cash earnings, but as of this time of writing (February 18), I’ve only earned $4,311 gross-  closer to $3,800 after deductions. With only 10 days to go, even with 100% consistency, I don’t see myself taking home more than $3,000 after deductions ($3,500 if not in camp, as there is the tax-free meal allowance). Assigning a 50/50 probability of perfect consistency along with meal allowances, excluding tomorrow’s paid statutory holiday, I only see an expected take-home of $2,062 – a total of $5,862 for February.

Due to a loss of one of my primary trucking clients as it hired its boss’s cousin and his friend to do my work (one for a lot less money), I’ve been forced to return to my previous winter’s oilfield services employer. My income is roughly the same, or only slightly higher, for increased work, stress, and inconsistency. I also lose the ability to defer monthly tax of $1,500 – 2,000 by about a year – which severely hampers my ability to invest and reduce debts. The gap widens significantly with working in the oilfield as a contractor versus an employee. Vacuum, hydrovac, and combo vac trucking had a $350 – 375 day rate for a while; now it’s risen back to $425 – 475 – both +4% vacation. Based on this,

Last winter oilfield season: $6,135/month avg. after-deductions.

Increased day rates approx. = +24%

Using last season’s average as a guideline, expect:

$7,607/month net; $1,775/week take-home.

However, I should be prepared for only EI income of $543/week for the 7 weeks of from April to May long weekend, since my previous spring client is now gone… which is a loss of $9,450, before tax. On the bright side, I’ll have 6 weeks of uninterrupted study time to complete my 3rd period electrician education, and one more for a short vacation/break. How I will afford that loss or at least replace some of it, I don’t know yet.

Coincidently, being hit by a sudden $11,800 special assessment due to the cracking underground concrete parkade roof, has increased my monthly debt load significantly. I also made the rushed decision to buy the BMW X5 to save the M4 daily driver some grief of driving on rough northern Alberta roads and winters – not anticipating both the loss of my primary client, and the next oilfield trucking client afterwards. These twin-shocks of drastic cashflow reduction and sudden jump in expenses gloom the medium-term financial outlook. Now I’d be happy just to save a few hundred bucks every month.

When I’m down, I flash back to my days at UBC – the dance of the devil amongst the academic and social elites from privileged, highly educated families. These have been the very people who threatened to send me down into the abyss of decade(s) of indebtedness and bankruptcy. I’d owe tens of thousands of unescapable student debt to only be unemployed, or making $30,000 year in a place where the average home exceeded $1M. I’d have my career ambitions forever garnished as the best of the competition headed to the likes of law school, investment banking, medical school, or the upper levels of the social ladder. I’d have everything I worked for lost to that war. I’ve never forgotten the cold stare of the eyes of my nemesis – the previously-assured end of my future. To this day, the same pains resonate through my veins, along with the prophecy proposed by my competition and doubters (who run in my own family):

You aren’t from a privileged family. You don’t have any gifts from God. You’re just born into a unfortunate [income-]poor family, and should be just grateful to be alive. Just be grateful to have a job. You aren’t attractive either, so you got nothing going for you anyone would want… you are not an alpha-male; a member of the survival of the fittest.

You also aren’t white… so you’d be lucky to make $100,000. You won’t see $150,000.

When I’m down, often I picture myself laying down in the fighting ring- staring up at the ceiling as my sweat trickles down the sides of my face and cheeks. I can hear the cheers of the crowd:

Get up, get up! Hit him back! You still got it in you, get up!

In a way, the oil crash has allowed me to shine. The memories of being at the bottom of the barrel in Fort McMurray are still fresh. When I’ve worked for Cenovus, it pained me to see beautiful women working in the plant amongst other young men in highly-sought, high-paying positions – while I’ve just worked for the lowly trucking contractors offering only a fraction of the future we all have sought. I’ve hated being the last in line, despite being in post-secondary for 7 years, and working my very hardest to succeed. Only in this rough environment, my ambition, working heart, and relentlessness to fight on until the end, have allowed me to shine in a relative sense. The playing board is gradually evening out, even if life isn’t fair.