Alpha Safety a leader with personal touch

How a small, family-run B.C. company is finding and keeping talent in the booming oil sector

Being “bushed” — irrational and agitated as a result of losing a sense of reality — is just one of many on-the-job downsides that’s working against Alpha Safety Ltd.’s best laid recruitment and retention plans. While it doesn’t happen often, the company’s highly trained dispatchers are quick to spot the warning signs in the 70 field medics working in remote oil patches in northern British Columbia and get them back to base in Fort St. John, B.C. (785 kilometres northeast of Vancouver).

The shifts for the medics can last as long as 65 days in fair to hardly tolerable camps.

“I’ve been so far back in the back, where it is so nasty and it is so cold,” says medic Ted Thompson. Despite this complaint, he has gladly worked two oil-patch seasons with Alpha and is gearing up for a third. Come spring, he returns home to Ontario where he is a massage therapist in Muskoka.

One big incentive for Thompson and the other recruits is the 500 minutes of free cellphone service per month provided to each on-the-road employee at Alpha Safety. This perk allowed Thompson to hear all about the birth of his first grandchild.

“Without the benefit of the phone, I wouldn’t be able to maintain relationships,” he says.

Building strong relationships with employees is at the heart of why Alpha Safety was chosen as an industry leader in recruitment and retention by the Calgary-based Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada in June.

The recognition landed it the coveted role of participating in the development of a unique HR initiative launched by the council called “Increasing the Talent.” Working with Alpha (and another company, Davenco, in Grand Prairie, Alta.), the council will leverage the best practices and test new ones to eventually create a tool kit for companies facing uphill recruitment and retention efforts.

“(Alpha Safety) really is one of the best at retention in this industry,” says Judith MacBride-King, principle at MacBride-King and McLean, an HR consultancy in Ottawa and a consultant to the Increasing the Talent project. “They seem to have really strong family values, and a lot of it has to do with building relationships with their staff.”

Thompson explains the Alpha appeal further: “I liken it to a certain kindness. This company is really friendly. You’re not just part of their policy and procedures. They have a real concern for the people who work with them.”

The good workplace culture — one of the keys to employee retention — is thanks in no small part to the fact Alpha is a family-founded, family-run company. David Phibbs, manager and CEO, headed to Fort St. John with a Level III industrial first-aid certification, one of his sons and a vehicle in 1997 and “the doors just opened up,” he says.

Building Alpha up to its current full-time staff of 15 was no easy feat, however, and the level of commitment extended far wider than an open-door policy at the office. Phibbs and his wife put out welcome mats for workers in their own home, as accommodations for workers on their days off are few and far between in the town of 18,000 during the height of the oil season.

“We really try to get to know employees. We find out about their own relationships because if their wives or boyfriends don’t support them being up here, it never works out,” says Phibbs.

Phibbs once flew an employee to West Africa when his father died.

“Now we don’t do that all the time,” he says. “But we like to be there for people if they need us.”

While Alpha does not have trained counsellors, many of the dispatchers are available any time of day or night to lend a supportive ear. One policy that makes Phibbs proud is no one will ever get an answering machine when they call Alpha.

“There will always be someone to answer calls,” he says.

Flexibility is also incredibly important at Alpha, especially considering the length of shifts. If a medic needs time off, has a family emergency or just prefers to work a certain schedule, the company does its best to accommodate him. In addition to providing 24-hour supervisor contact (and impromptu counselling), Alpha offers advancement and training opportunities.

Being involved with the Increasing the Talent project is exciting for Sara Conkin, the HR practitioner at Alpha and daughter of founder Phibbs. Conkin is constantly sourcing potential new medics (who may or may not need training) for each new season, but here’s the rub — the work is not guaranteed. Months can pass before they get a call, and then, who knows if they’re still available, says Conkin.

“It can be really discouraging. This past spring we launched recruitment efforts, newspaper ads and orientation sessions. We had 60 people come. Now that firefighting season is here, only nine of those people could actually work,” says Conkin.

One plus is the Alpha training agency where they are able to tap into the best talent taking a variety of safety courses. Conversely, Alpha is able to offer a wide range of continuing employment, from instructor positions and office staff to air safety personnel for its air safety division. To recognize loyal employees within the medic and air division, Alpha also offers yearly, graduated pay increases.

Most of Conkin’s initial recruitment efforts are web-based. And she admits while there have been a few surprises, they’ve become quite experienced at interviewing and hiring long-distance.

“We’re definitely not perfect. We have lots of room to improve,” says Phibbs.

The Increasing the Talent initiative should be complete by the end of this year, with the resulting tool kit made available by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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