Catch Ya on the Flip Side, Alberta!

As has been known to happen on occasion, my life has come to another set of crossroads. Tomorrow, after a mere 5-1/2 hours of jumping around the office like a lunatic, my job will be done. I’ll board a bus to go back to camp, where I’ll have a snack, grab my bags, and wait for the bus that takes us to the air strip. Once I’m on the plane it will be a moderately uncomfortable nine hour flight, and then I’ll be back home, with no idea of what the future holds.

I am amazingly calm about that fact.

Less than two years ago my world was turned upside down when the mill where my husband and I both worked shut down. At the time I had only been back for two months after having been off on maternity leave, and my husband was home taking a few months of parental leave. We’d been trying to work out what we were going to do for child care when he returned to work (and how the hell we were going to afford it); we still had student loans to pay, a car loan to deal with, and a mortgage hanging over our heads, to say nothing of the fact that we had a tiny little princess who relied on us to take care of her.

Those weren’t good days. I readily admit that on the day the announcement was made I broke down more than a couple of times. I was the only woman in the section of the mill where I worked, and as such I spent a rather large chunk of the day locked alone inside the women’s locker room, trying to gather up the pieces of my shattered psyche. I had no idea what we were going to do. Numbers kept running through my mind, and those numbers told me that there was no way we could pay our mortgage, our car payment, our student loans, and all those little things like food and heat on two unemployment checks. A quick call to the bank that holds our mortgage revealed that there was no kind of safeguard for this situation: we would still have to make our full payments. A longer look into the local job bank website revealed what I already knew: that there were no other jobs for an instrumentation tech or an industrial electrician nearby enough that we wouldn’t have to move to obtain them (and since the housing market in our area is so bad, there was no way we’d be able to get rid of our house and move). Basically, the weight of the world fell down on me all at once. We were trapped in a town with no job opportunities, in a house that we had little to no chance of selling, with bills that we would have no way of paying. We had a little savings set aside, but it wouldn’t last long. By the end of that first day I was Googling the repercussions of filing bankruptcy.

In retrospect, my reaction was a little more dramatic than was necessary, but it was still a rough time. I had no idea what we were going to do, and I was STRESSED OUT. There were no jobs in our field that were a reasonable distance away, and the jobs outside our field barely paid more than what we would be receiving on employment insurance. The only other skill I felt I had was writing, but I had no idea how to go about that, and writing takes time that we didn’t really have.

My husband and I had to make a hard decision; one of us would have to stay at home with the baby while the other went out West for work.

Those who don’t live in Canada might not understand exactly what I mean, but I can put it pretty simply: the overwhelming majority of good jobs in Canada are located in Alberta, specifically on the oil sands. Lots and LOTS of people travel from their homes in other provinces to find work in Alberta. Many of the oil sands jobs involve working strange shifts, such as working for ten days straight and then having four days off, or working for three weeks straight and then having two weeks off. Depending on the company they might fly you back and forth from your home for every shift, or you may have to pay for your own flights if you want to go home. Some jobs require you to find a place to stay nearby (and, ideally, pay you a “living out allowance”) and others book you a room at a “camp” where you stay while you’re on shift.

To put it in simple terms, working “out West” is not an ideal situation. You’re away from home, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months at a time, away from your family, and often with many restrictions put on you (for instance, many of the “camps” prohibit alcohol and you can lose your job if you even show up to check-in with the hint of liquor on your breath). There can be good money to be made, depending on where you go and what kind of work you do, but many people won’t even consider this kind of life because of the implications of being away from home for so long.

But we had to do something, so my husband and I started applying for jobs. He got the first call, for a job that required him to find his own place to stay and transportation to and from work. It was a ten-days-on, four-days-off shift, which meant that even if he wanted to pay for the flights he couldn’t really come home (it takes almost a full day to fly from Alberta to Nova Scotia, another to fly back again, and it would cost a major chunk of his check). It was an awful job that he understandably hated, but luckily he was only there for a month when I got the call for my job. It would be two weeks on, two weeks off, the company would pay for all flights, and it was a “camp” position, so I’d have no expenditures while there. It also paid quite good money, so we’d easily be able to survive (and save!) even with my husband at home watching the baby. It was probably the best offer I could have gotten.

And it terrified me. I tried not to show it, but it absolutely terrified me. I’d never even been on a plane before, never mind flying 75% of the way across the country, and being away from my baby girl for two weeks at a time. The morning I left for my first shift I struggled not to start bawling my eyes out while sitting past security waiting for my flight. I really didn’t know how I was going to handle it.

I’ve been at that job for a year now, and it hasn’t felt nearly that long. Despite all my fears and worries, it turned out to be a great job. I’ve had awesome coworkers, and in my time out here I’ve managed to pay off all of our student loans, plus the remainder of the car loan, and I’ve put money aside for the baby’s education fund, in addition to our other savings (which will put a big chunk in the mortgage when our term comes up next year). There were lonely days, but I was able to Skype with my husband and the baby most nights, and when I was actually at home I could spend two straight weeks just playing with the baby if I wanted to. After an incredible amount of stress over the loss of both of our jobs, we found ourselves in a position to actually get ahead, and I haven’t suffered for it. The lifestyle may not be ideal, but it’s not impossible to do. It was a good decision to make.

So now that this job is over, I’m heading home without stress clouding my mind. We may be back to dual-unemployment, but it won’t last forever. We have significantly less debt than we had a year ago, we’ve saved a ton of money by having my husband stay home instead of having to deal with child care, and I’ve collected a number of contacts who could help me or my husband get an upper hand on the next job. We can’t both stay at home and relax forever, but for the time being I plan to go home, enjoy my family as much as I can, and take solace in the fact that there is no rush to work something out asap.

I’m taking a well-deserved vacation.

Lonely Bed

This morning I woke up alone in bed for the first time in a long time. The reason? My husband, like so many other Nova Scotians, has headed out ‘West’ for work.

Here’s the thing. My husband isn’t just some random guy with no education or experience who ran out West with hopes of making some quick cash. He has a college diploma in electrical engineering. He’s a 4th year apprentice Industrial Electrician, very close to become a Red Seal Certified Journeyman. He has a ton of safety training, and approximately 4 years experience in the pulp and paper industry. And we can’t find a job for him anywhere in Nova Scotia.

The same goes for me. I have a university degree (the same program as my husband, but with an extra year of programming languages tacked onto the end). I’m a Red Seal Certified Journeyman (Journeywoman?) Industrial Instrumentation Tech. I have a ton of safety training, and approximately 5 years experience in the pulp and paper industry. And again, I can’t find a job anywhere in Nova Scotia.

I don’t claim to know anything about business or economics. That’s not my thing, and even if someone were to explain it to me I’m quite sure I wouldn’t understand a word of it. But even if I had that knowledge, I think I would still find it impossible to comprehend how an entire province can be devoid of jobs in the trades, a classification of workforce that is enormous in other parts of the country. Just look at the aforementioned ‘out West’. Alberta has so many jobs in the trades that some companies pay for people to fly back and forth between their home and their job, while putting them up in camps during the work shift, effectively eliminating any cost of living. Meanwhile, the few tradesmen that we have here in Nova Scotia are paid a fraction of the wages and get none of those perks. I’m not saying that we don’t get a decent wage, but even a good wage looks pretty awful when you know that a few provinces over you could be getting two or even three times as much. And of course, the wages don’t matter in the slightest if the jobs aren’t even available in the first place.

And it’s not just the trades. Unemployment is as rampant in Nova Scotia as the exodus out West is. It just amazes me, I guess. The politicians in this province have been known to fight tooth and nail for dying industries (*cough*papermill*cough*), but they’ve got no drive toward attracting new, viable ones. The people here (retirees who don’t need work, I’m looking at you) have an awful habit of opposing the industries who do come knocking, usually claiming that they’ll destroy the province. Well I hate to break it to you, activists, but the province can be as pretty and environmental as you want it to be, but no one will be here to enjoy it in a few more years!

I know that for the most part I’m talking to a wall here. The people who agree with me are dealing with the same issues my husband and I are dealing with, and the people who don’t agree aren’t going to listen to anything I have to say anyway. So I guess in the end all I can say is that its a frustrating situation. I know my husband and I aren’t the only one’s dealing with it, but in this sort of case knowing there are others having the same issue isn’t exactly comforting.