Cameco knows that sometimes, the best way to get the talent you need is to cultivate it yourself.

Rather than try to pluck skilled workers and labourers from larger cities and communities across the country, Cameco is tapping into the working population where it operates. Although this is a strategy that Cameco has used for decades, the company is digging deeper and trying to grow this recruiting method.

Through surface lease agreements, Cameco has committed to hiring people that live in the communities where it has operations. “Not only is it the right thing to do—to employ people in the community in which you operate—but for us, it’s an advantage,” says Laurie Brower, manager, workforce planning, with Cameco.

Headquartered in Saskatoon, Cameco is the world’s largest uranium producer, accounting for 19% of world production from its mines in Canada and the U.S. It also provides the processing services required to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. While the company has processing operations in Ontario, the primary mining operations are in Northern Saskatchewan. “We have a hard time getting skilled people to leave the communities they are in,” says Robert Gerelus, manager, pensions and benefits, with Cameco. “We feel time is better spent looking where our workforce predominantly is, and investing in those people.”

For Cameco, people living in the northern communities are a precious resource—one it doesn’t want to risk losing. According to Brower, Cameco’s biggest competitors for talent are the oil sands projects in Fort McMurray, Alta. As Fort McMurray grows, she expects the competition for talent will become fiercer, which is a big reason for the focus on the northern communities. “We need even stronger relationships to make sure we are not losing people to the oil sands.”

Currently, just over half of Cameco’s mining workforce are residents of Saskatchewan’s north (RSN), which are mostly Aboriginal people. The company has built ties with these people and has always maintained an employment level for Aboriginals of 50% to 54% at the northern locations. However, Brower admits that in recent years, development in the region has tapered. “We’ve been employing northerners since we’ve been operating—since the 1970s,” she says. “Some of our employees are third generation…but recently, we’ve stalled.” Cameco is increasing its northern efforts and is aiming to have RSN workers represent 67% of its mining workforce in the next five to seven years.

2008 Western Canada Report

Cameco’s northern affairs office works with educational institutions, First Nations and Métis groups to create training programs for residents of Northern Saskatchewan to obtain skills that will allow them to enter the Cameco workforce. “We work very hard with those communities and institutions in northern Saskatchewan and have various recruiters focused on the different areas to understand who the pools of people are that we can hire, and what type of additional training they need,” she says.

Being in such a heavily regulated industry, the company needs to employ enough people to ensure that it is operating as per its regulatory requirements and meeting all of its commitments. Over the past three years, Cameco has seen significant growth, but the engineers, powerhouse operators and various other skilled workers that it needs are few—and in high demand.

Currently, all of the entry-level positions in the northern operations go to RSN workers, but now that the company needs to fill more senior positions, it has started to establish career paths for the high-potential employees at these locations. “What we have to do now is advance those RSN workers that we have in our workforce so we can create better opportunities for them and bring in new people,” Brower explains.

However, moving to a senior position requires additional skills and training. Many of the RSN workers come from isolated communities and have limited access to the type of post-secondary education needed to fill these highly technical roles. To overcome this hurdle, the company instituted a career-transition program in 2005 for motivated employees. The programs pays employees 80% of their salaries while they are in school, covers their tuition costs and transitions them into a new role once they have completed the course or degree. “We realize that in this market, we need to make a lot of our talent,” Brower says. “We have to be more thoughtful about how we develop our workers, how we move them through the organization.”

Although it seems as though Cameco has its workforce issues under control, Brower says the organization still has some work to do. “It’s not a well-oiled machine yet, but I hope it will be shortly.” Well-oiled machine or not, Cameco’s recruiting methods are smart and creative, giving it a new talent pool to draw from for years to come.

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© Copyright 2008 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the October 2008 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.