The Electrical Industry Education Trust Fund of Alberta, endowed by the Electrical Contractors Association of Alberta and Local 424 in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), recently rolled out a $1 million custom training center, built as an expanding truck trailer, that will serve as a classroom on wheels for night and weekend training for Alberta electrical workers at oil sands work camps in the Fort McMurray bitumen belt — 600 miles north of Montana — where there are 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Each day, hundreds of tons of oil sands are scooped up by million-dollar trucks and brought to a plant where they're heated in a cell, which separates the oil from the sand. This oil froth is then sent to an upgrader and eventually to a refinery, all requiring specialized equipment.

Electrical workers are required to take extra training for installations of this industrial hardware in oil sands plants. The portable classroom will enable journeymen to acquire the “red seal” certification required within six months of arriving at the oil sands. Also, apprenticeship programs will be delivered over the unit's videoconference facilities from the workers' stationary training centers in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, and Calgary. “We invest a considerable amount in training,” says Ray Matthews, training director. “It's important to maintain and improve our skills.”

The training is reserved for the 6,500 IBEW members and the novices apprenticed to them, who work for about 100 unionized firms in Alberta industrial, commercial, and institutional electrical contracting, which is expecting $100 billion over the next 10 years to be invested in this area. The educational initiative may be a way for union shops to gain an edge in competition with non-union operations. “We're striving to help our members become the best electrical workers in the province,” Matthews says. “This does give us an advantage.”