Back in 1986, when Mike Cowger was still barely out of high school and working as a welder’s helper, he was given a choice that would determine his career path for the coming decades.
That choice was between apprenticing as a welder or a mechanic, or enrolling in a junior foreman program.
“The junior foreman program,” said Cowger, explaining his decision, “you stayed with that particular company and traveled wherever they had work. The idea of having my own tickets, which could travel anywhere with me, was more appealing. And between mechanicking or welding, I chose the welding end of it.”
He felt that the hours were better as a welder.
“Mechanics are busy all the time,” he said, “but, typically, at the end of the shift, when machinery is shut down for the day’s work, is when a mechanic can get busiest. Because he has to maintain it for tomorrow morning. Where from the welding point of view, you’re in the same conditions, it can be cold and wet and miserable, but you typically work your 12 daylight hours so that you’re not, in the middle of the night, being busy.”
When Cowger began his career, welding was one of the few trades in the oil patch at the time that actually required a ticket, which meant a lot to somebody just starting out in the profession.
“As an apprentice,” said Cowger, “you were always working with qualified people. You got a good hands on knowledge right from the start of the dos and the don’ts and the whys, as opposed to: ‘This is what we always do; so, this is why we do it.’”
Cowger explained that there are four main parts to welding trade: structural work, which involves building items such as stairs or railings; pressure work, which can be a big part of the work in the oil and gas industry because of the construction of pipelines and other associated facilities; utility work, which involves maintenance of machinery and heavy equipment.
“And then finally you just got your knick knacks,” he said. “Someone brings almost anything to you – can you fix it?
“And the conditions can be anything mother nature throws at you,” he continued. “I’m a rig welder. So, I have my own truck, my own company. When the phone rings, I go to work.”
That business is simply M. Cowger Welding.
“So, whatever the day sends you is what you’re working in. And so you learn to adapt. You bring with you forms of shelter, whether it’s umbrellas or these little portable structures. But the only thing that stops you is if the weather is too negative for a quality weld to be performed. So, it’s raining too hard, blowing too hard, snowing too hard.”
Cold temperatures can also be a factor.
“If you cannot maintain a certain pre-heat in the items that you’re working on, it’s cooling too quickly,” said Cowger.
A few short years into his life as a professional welder, Cowger was given an opportunity to go to work for Westcoast Energy – now Spectra Energy – where he spent seven years as a welder during the nineties.
“I chose to go work for Westcoast because they had jobs that I would not normally have gotten to participate in had I stayed as a contractor straight through,” he explained.
It was a lot of specialty work.
“Westcoast was doing a lot of expansion during the early nineties when I hired on with them,” he said.
“And they would do big inch [pipe]. Typically, in the Fort St. John area, from two inch to twelve inch is the range of pipe that you get to work with. With Westcoast, we were working on up to 42 inch in facilities. Not big jobs, but big items.’
It was a period of professional growth for Cowger.
“It was one of the best opportunities I had in my career to see, learn and practice new skills that you don’t normally get to see anywhere else just because of the scope of their work,” he said.
However, according to Cowger, that sort of learning experience isn’t all it takes to succeed as a welder.
“To thrive in this sort of career you have to be, first of all, an outdoors sort,” he said. “You have to be a hands on person. One who likes to work. You have to have a good imagination because there will be times when you can’t necessarily see how this is going to be accomplished, but through a good imagination, some... hands on experience previously, you will see that it can be done.”
The imagination is a really important aspect considering the kind of problem solver a welder often has to be.
“There will be a lot of instances where a problem or a task is brought to you with no clear way of accomplishing it,” said Cowger.
“You need to be able to think outside the box,” he continued. “In many cases, where we’re in some of these remote areas, we have limited resources. We just have what’s with us. And then how can we manipulate something that may not be intended for that task but can be utilized.
“If you’re truly interested in your trade, that will become natural. Because you are going to look forward to the challenge of it.”
The opportunity to experience remote and rugged landscapes is also part of the appeal of the profession for Cowger.
“I have had opportunity to work right from Northwest Territories to Vancouver Island,” he said. “Some of that work has included flying with helicopter, where you strip all your equipment down to its bare necessities so it can be carried in. Hauling all your parts and pieces, all your equipment you’re going to work with, perform your task or your job onsite, and then load it all up and fly it all out according to what your helicopter can in fact carry.
“It’s an opportunity that most folks that have a job in an office don’t even get a chance at,” he added. “For us, it’s every day – almost.”
Cowger found himself in a good position when he left Westcoast, partly because of the work he had done with them and partly because of the reputation he had built prior to joining that company.
“I had worked for everyone,” he said.
“When I came back out, they all knew where I had been and they… understood the sort of work that we did do [at Westcoast],” he continued.
“We did a lot of specialty welding in tie-ins, construction – small scale, but very technical – that typically were not accomplished or there wasn’t the opportunity [to do] outside of Westcoast. So, when I came back, it was a real feather in the cap because I had those skills.
“And you have to remember, at that time, we would be working, as a Westcoast employee, with most of these fellows, because they were doing the construction for the outside companies, wanting to tie-in to the Westcoast system. And I would be there, or the guys I was working with would be there, accomplishing that. You’re working almost hand-in-hand with the same people, but now you’re on the other side of the fence. And we were doing welding procedures and so on, so forth that only we were allowed to do, because we had the qualifications and the experiences to do.
“Today, it is invaluable. There’s a lot of jobs I get because of my previous experience.”
The profession and the oil patch have been good to Cowger over the years, but it has had its drawbacks as well.
“Financially, it can be very lucrative,” he said. “You are your own boss. If you don’t like a circumstance where you’re working, you have the right to move on, and you have the ability, because you’re taking your equipment and your skills with you.
“It has always treated me very well. I have not had to travel outside of the Fort St. John region to ever get a job. I’ve always worked for a local company. Maybe we traveled long distances, but it was with a Fort St. John company.
“The negative is long hours,” he continued. “If you’re a family person, you’re quite often away from home in camp. You don’t get to see your family for long periods of time. As with any industry, there’s the potential of drugs and alcohol and all of the downsides to that.
“You can retire early – or earlier – if you’re very careful, but getting to that point takes a lot of discipline and takes a lot of understanding from everyone in your family… You’re not available for certain family functions. You’re gone. You can’t always say no to your boss if: ‘Hey, we’ve got a birthday party for a five year old daughter. Can I get a few days off?’ Because you might be replaced and not allowed back because they’ve got someone else.”
Refusing one job could turn out to be a poor decision for a welder because it isn’t always clear when and where the next job will be.
“You’re always juggling with the idea of when will the next job be if I choose to not accept this one,” said Cowger.
“And that is where time in the business plays to your advantage somewhat, but not always. When a company needs people, they need people today, and they’ll find them. And you might be sitting regardless of who you are.
“It is definitely a tightrope. You’re balancing all the time.”
That uncertainty – and neglecting to prepare for the lean times – is an issue that Cowger has seen cause trouble for some welders in the patch.
“I was raised on a farm,” he said. “We still own our farm. We learned very early that there can be a rainy day and you better be prepared for it. And that is what we’ve seen with a lot of the other oil and gas regions of Western Canada. They can have some very slow downturns.
“This year was not as good as they had thought because natural gas prices dropped. For the first time in ten years, I believe, it dropped below $2.00 a unit. So, that really slowed down a lot of projects that had been forecasted for this winter. We were steady, but we were not as busy as first projected.”
Cowger described Fort St. John as a “bubble” where the slow seasons aren’t felt as deeply and don’t last as long, but they can still be difficult to manage.
“The only thing I would caution is that it can be very good here, [but] if you’re not careful with how you handle your money, you can become destitute in a real hurry because of the cost of living and all those others things,” he said, suggesting that people get stuck in the mindset that there will always be more work – and more money.
“There can be quite a space of time between this job and your next one,” he continued. “Like right now, it’s slowed down for spring break-up. For myself, this is the first time in four springs that I have had any amount of time off, because the company I’ve been working for, Shell, chose this year to slow down a little bit, regroup themselves, instead of working straight through.
“Being a local, one of the first things is you learn very quickly that there can be a slow time and to be saving your money. You don’t want to get caught up in the rat race of: ‘There’s always another job; so, I can buy this toy and I can buy that toy.’
“People have been caught in very tough financial circumstances. So, I would tell kids: great opportunity, but understand that it’s not forever.”
One of the biggest changes in the welding business in the Fort St. John area since Cowger got his start has simply been the growth. When he began his career, there were just 45 rig welders in the city, but there are now over 200, including a growing number of female welders and skilled tradespeople from other industries and other regions of Canada who have decided to bring their skills to the patch.
“There’s a lot more local purchasing than… back when I first started, because there are more people,” said Cowger. “And most of the guys were busy all winter.
“The downside is that they give the wrong impression that it’s the land of no limits. And there are limits. And people need to understand that just because the truck is big and shiny and they’ve got all the toys in the yard – all the welders got toys in their yard, riverboats, quads and whatnot – doesn’t mean they’re paid for. Doesn’t mean that fellow owns them.
“The downside is a false sense of security when people watch the welders in Fort St. John.”