Diversity broadly defined at Suncor Energy

Energy company partners with schools, Aboriginal groups and recruits globally

“We love the winters.” That’s not a sentiment one would expect to find in a northern Alberta oil town. But it is the name of one of the courses offered to foreign workers in Fort McMurray, Alta., some of whom are from as far away as the tropical climates of the Philippines and Venezuela.

The course is a partnership between Keyano College and the company that employs these immigrant workers, Suncor Energy. Suncor is an integrated energy company with four major business divisions and more than 6,500 employees. It was recently named to Mediacorp Canada Inc.’s Best Diversity Employers 2008 list.

At “We Love the Winters,” foreign workers learn about everything from plugging in their cars during a cold snap to understanding hockey and the culture of Canadians.

Diversity is not only about hiring people from minority communities, it’s also about setting them up for success once they get there, says Judith Sparkes, manager of HR communications at Suncor.

“It’s to help people to adapt to living here,” she says. “It’s all of that stuff that doesn’t necessarily help them adjust to their workplace but it helps them adjust to their new home and their new community, which ultimately makes the transition easier so they can be successful at work as well.”

No diversity quotas

Seven per cent of Suncor workers identify themselves as Aboriginal and nine per cent as visible minorities. Unlike some organizations, there are no quotas or departments promoting diversity at Suncor. It’s just part of the culture and it starts at the top, says Sparkes. In an industry traditionally led by white men, two members of Suncor’s executive team are visible minorities.

“When it’s integrated into the way we do business, I think that’s a healthy approach as opposed to having one kind of centre or group that’s responsible for it,” says Sparkes. “It’s ultimately about cultural change.”

Diversity at Suncor has been largely driven by growth. Suncor’s workforce has almost doubled over the past five years and is expected to expand by another 2,000 employees by 2012.

“It’s enormous growth and you layer on the fact that we’re in a really tight labour market,” she says. “It just makes sense to cast a wider net.”

Partnering with schools, Aboriginal groups

To do that, Suncor has formed partnerships with universities, colleges, Aboriginal groups and foundations to create a talent pool of people from diverse backgrounds.

Suncor donated $3 million over six years to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton to create a Centre for Piping Technology that also provides scholarships for Aboriginal, female and immigrant students in the field.

The company is also involved in a trades diversity program where Suncor and other local companies have jointly recruited candidates for trades programs. They get an apprenticeship with a local contractor and a promise of a hire with Suncor.

There’s also a partnership with Bow Valley College in Calgary to connect immigrant professionals with local employers.

Many of these initiatives benefit not only Suncor but the wider oil and gas industry as well. Of the 19 people placed through the Bow Valley College program, four of them found jobs at Suncor. The rest are working for competitors.

“Those are all efforts to create the talent pool. In some cases, we directly benefit. In others, it’s the industry,” she says.

Global recruiting

Suncor has stretched its recruitment net globally, bringing in skilled workers from Venezuela’s oil industry and attracting talent from South Africa’s mining sector.

As each group of immigrants joins a team, leaders and colleagues are given targeted cultural diversity training. Suncor tries to build in awareness and offer ongoing education of cultural differences along the way, says Sparkes.

Recently, employees on both sides got a lesson in cultural difference at a muddy construction site. Canadian workers removed their muddy boots on arriving at the common areas; those from the Philippines didn’t because they don’t typically wear socks. Both sides got together to talk before the issue festered.

Historically, diversity has been thought of in ethnic terms but Sparkes says diversity is now increasingly about variety. Suncor has started recruiting from unexpected sources — government, non-profits, sustainable development and environmental advocacy organizations — to bring in a wider array of skills and knowledge.

“All of those folks bring a different perspective to the table,” she says.

While only about one-third of the Suncor workforce is female, Sparkes says succession planning is underway to identify and attract more women to leadership roles in the future.

The most acute diversity issue is one that’s not being addressed: The generational differences in the workplace, she says.

“I really think that’s our next challenge,” she says. “I just see some issues brewing in that the ‘natural order’ of things is being turned upside down. We’re going to have situations where the supervisor is going to be younger than the people reporting to (him). How do both parties manage that because there are different cultural assumptions about that?”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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