EDMONTON, Canada — With a daughter to feed, no job and $200 in the bank, Detroit pipe fitter Scott Zarembski boarded a plane on a one-way ticket to this industrial capital city.
He'd heard there was work in western Canada. Turns out he'd heard right. Within days he was wearing a hard hat at a Shell oil refinery 15 miles away in Fort Saskatchewan. Within six months he had earned almost $50,000. That was 2009. And he's still there.
"If you want to work, you can work," said Zarembski, 45. "And it's just getting started."
U.S. workers, Canada wants you.
Here in the western province of Alberta, energy companies are racing to tap the region's vast deposits of oil sands. Canada is looking to double production by the end of the decade. To do so it will have to lure more workers — tens of thousands of them — to this cold and sparsely populated place. The weak U.S. recovery is giving them a big assist.
Canadian employers are swarming U.S. job fairs, advertising on radio and YouTube and using headhunters to lure out-of-work Americans north. California, with its 10.2% unemployment rate, has become a prime target. Canadian recruiters are headed to a job fair in the Coachella Valley next month to woo construction workers idled by the housing meltdown.
The Great White North might seem a tough sell with winter coming on. But the Canadians have honed their sales pitch: free universal healthcare, good pay, quality schools, retention bonuses and steady work.
"California has a lot of workers and we hope they come up," said Mike Wo, executive director of the Edmonton Economic Development Corp.
The U.S. isn't the only place Canada is looking for labor. In Alberta, which is expecting a shortage of 114,000 skilled workers by 2021, provincial officials have been courting English-speaking tradespeople from Ireland, Scotland and other European nations. Immigrants from the Philippines, India and Africa have found work in services. But some employers prefer Americans because they adapt quickly, come from a similar culture and can visit their homes more easily.
Since 2010, about 35,000 U.S. workers a year have been issued work permits, according to Canadian immigration statistics. That's up 13% from earlier in the decade. And that figure is expected to grow as provinces continue to loosen requirements for temporary foreign workers.
Rudolf Kischer, a Vancouver-based immigration attorney, said his firm can hardly keep up with the processing of work permits for employers hiring U.S. help.
"We're the busiest we've ever been," he said.
Many of those workers are heading to where the labor market is hottest: Edmonton.
One of the fastest growing cities in Canada, this capital city owes its prosperity to the oil sands. Lying a few hours to the north, the sands are a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen — a heavy, black, viscous petroleum — that must be mined and processed to extract the oil. Alberta's massive deposits, which rival the conventional crude oil reserves of Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, are being developed at breakneck speed to meet the growing global demand for energy.
Edmonton has become a staging ground for oil companies that include Canada's Suncor Energy Inc., Shell Canada Ltd. and Chevron Canada Ltd. The energy sector has in turn boosted industries such as manufacturing, home building and retailing.
With a population of about 812,000, Edmonton looks a lot like many American cities. There are large strip malls anchored by U.S. retailers such as Costco and Home Depot, and ubiquitous coffee shops — except here Tim Horton's doughnut shops outnumber Starbucks 3 to 1.
The biggest difference: The unemployment rate here is 4.5%, and "We're Hiring" signs are posted in almost every window.
Moving to a city where the economy is firing on all cylinders was a sharp turn from struggling Motor City, Zarembski said.
Fat paychecks allowed him to ditch his battered Pontiac Grand Am for a late-model Dodge pickup truck. He has vacationed in the Dominican Republic and taken his 14-year-old daughter to Universal Studios in Florida. He's planning to buy a house in Edmonton's western suburbs soon.
With so much work available, Zarembski said, trade workers can afford to pick and choose. Jobs near Fort McMurray, a remote town six hours north, are the best-paid; a welder can make up $37 an hour. (At present Canadian and U.S. dollars are almost equivalent in value.) But laborers must stay in barracks-style camps, which energy companies have upgraded to woo them. The best ones offer private rooms with flat-screen TVs, gyms, prime dining and wireless Internet access.
Workers spend as long as a couple of months at a stretch laboring before returning to Edmonton "moneyed up," as the expression goes around here. Workers then pump those dollars into the local economy.
Around the province, the wealth these blue-collar jobs bring is evident. The parking lot outside Zarembski's plumbers and pipe fitters union — UA Local 488 — was filled with large, late-model Chevrolet and Ford pickups. Boats and ATVs dot the driveways of suburban tract homes.
The province of Alberta boasts a median household income of $83,000 compared with $50,000 in the U.S. Still, transplants say it's tough leaving family behind.
"I can't sugarcoat that I miss my family," Zarembski said. "I miss my buddies."
In addition to bone-chilling winters, expats must adapt to another fact of life around here: slow service in restaurants, bars, auto repair shops and stores.
At a hair salon in Edmonton's Oliver Square, a neighborhood just west of downtown dotted with redeveloped condos and trendy restaurants, walk-in clients on a recent evening faced a 2 1/2-hour wait.
Stylist Emma Schwartz was the only worker in the shop. The 29-year-old fussed with a color job for a female client with aluminum foil in her hair as half a dozen other customers waited on couches, some checking their cellphones impatiently. The bustling Schwartz answered calls that came every few minutes and swept hair from the floor between clients.
"We're constantly short-staffed here," she said.
Across town, Andrew Hoggard, a 35-year-old auto mechanic who moved to Edmonton from Michigan in March, can hardly keep up with his workload. He puts in 12-hour days at a local Chrysler dealership, including some Saturday shifts.
Still, he's not complaining. In eight months, he's made $70,000. Back in Holland, Mich., where he worked on commission at Nissan dealership, he relied on his parents to help him pay rent when the work slowed.
He's now able to make child support payments for his 9-year-old twin boys, who live with his ex-wife. "When a bill comes now, I just pay," Hoggard said. "I don't have to worry about it."
The neighboring province of British Columbia is experiencing a similar resource boom and a shortage of skilled building trades workers. Recruiters for the British Columbia Construction Assn. are planning to be in Indio on Dec. 4 for a job fair aimed at luring some of the Inland Empire's 25,000 unemployed construction laborers.
The pilot event has been a yearlong collaboration between the Los Angeles-based Canada California Business Council, a Canadian trade group, and Riverside County officials who don't expect employment in the region's construction industry to rebound to pre-recession levels any time soon.
"This gives a chance to our workers to get back on their feet, pay their bills and get back in the workforce," said Tom Freeman, Riverside County's foreign trade commissioner.
Recruiters are looking to hire welders, engineers, carpenters and roofers, among other trades, said Abigail Fulton, vice president of the B.C. Construction Assn., which represents more than 2,000 construction companies. She said she hoped unemployed Golden State workers would warm to the opportunities up north.
"Coming from California, the climate might be shocking," she said. "But the jobs are there if people want them."