Process Operators

Process OperatorsAs construction of more and more oil sands projects ends and production begins, there is a change in the kind of workers most needed. More maintenance trades are needed and less construction trades workers are needed. Also, companies now need more operating and technical employees, such as process operators, power engineers, and instrumentation technicians. A study recently put out by the Government of Alberta found that from 2006 to 2020, 15,000 new employees would be needed for operations and maintenance in the oil sands industry. The study says there will be a need for over 5,000 plant and facility operators between 2006 and 2020. This includes process operators and power engineers.

Over the next few years, more plants and facilities will open up and the demand for process operators and power engineers will increase. There is advancement in this industry and even movement between industries.


Attrition is one reason (for the increased need) because a lot of the older workers are going to be coming to the age of retirement within a very short time and they will have to be replaced. The other reason is expansion of the existing plants and new plants starting up.

Process operator and power engineer programs

Visit the Alberta Learning Information Service website for more information on these occupations or contact one of the schools nearest you, listed below.

Process operators

There are a few different kinds of process operators: refinery/upgrader process operator, gas plant operator, and oil and gas pipeline operator, to name a few. The jobs found in Fort McMurray are generally related to mineral and hydrocarbon processing in the oil sands industry.

When searching for jobs, be aware that there are a number of different job titles for process operators. Usually, the title of the job is based on the process the employee is involved with or by the unit in which the employee works.

Movement between industries

There are industries other than oil and gas where process operators can work, such as pulp mills and chemical plants. They may process different products, but employers will often consider hiring workers from these other industries.

Power engineering

Process operators in the Fort McMurray area generally have their fourth or third class power engineering certificate, which allows them to process steam and operate boilers. Other process operators, such as pulp mill operators, don't necessarily need this.

In order to be called a power engineer, a person must be certified through the Alberta Boilers Safety Association to operate pressure equipment.

There are four different levels of power engineer-the lowest is fourth class, going up to first class

Field and control room operators

There are basically two levels of process operators in Fort McMurray: field operators and control room operators (or board operators).

Primarily when someone is starting out, they're in the field. After a few years they can become a board operator if they want to do that. They are more experienced and are kind of like the team lead. They tell the field people what needs to be done and if it needs manual operation, (the field operators) go out and do it-turning valves, adjusting an instrument to control temperature, pressure, flow, or level.

Process operators are responsible for the initial separation processes or the special treatment required ensuring that impurities such as water and sediments are removed from oil and gas in the field. Once separated, the oil or gas is transported by pipeline to refineries, gas plants or markets.

Some duties of a process operator are operating equipment to ensure that the oil meets specifications before it goes into a pipeline. Some of the equipment could be:


 dehydration units

 vacuum and atmospheric distillation columns





 steam turbines

 heat exchangers

A process operator, whether in Fort McMurray, or in a gas plant in Medicine Hat, basically processes the upstream oil and gas until it's purified enough to go through a pipeline outside the gates of the plant.

Co-op education

There are many power engineering programs around northern Alberta and some process operating courses. Keyano College offers co-ops for both courses and one of the advantages of this program, besides being in Fort McMurray, is the job placements which are provided.

Salary and benefits

The pay range for this occupation varies greatly depending on experience and training, but the range is about $20 to $47 per hour, but averages about $30 to $40 per hour.

Because these positions are for ongoing production and maintenance of oil sands projects, employees are expected to move to Fort McMurray, regardless of whether they are doing shift work or not.

Over the next few years, there will be many more opportunities for people wanting to get into a career in process operating or power engineering.

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