Recent graduates entering heavy oil face a chilly reception as the industry sheds jobs

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

University graduates from energy-related programs this year could have a hard time finding the work they want—assuming they can find any work at all. Statistics Canada says the resource sector last year cut nearly 21,000 positions, and there are clearly more losses to come in 2016.

“New graduates are going to experience a fairly tough 12 to 18 months, I'd say,” comments Jim Fearon, vice-president, central region, for human resources/recruitment specialists Hays Canada.

“There will be very few organizations taking the usual size of graduate intakes, which is very sad for them, but it's a fact of life for the oil and gas and mining industries. If you're going to be involved in them you have to live with that.”

The enormous investments companies have made in long-life oilsands projects ensure a continuing demand for expertise.

Bruce Peachey, principal of New Paradigm Engineering and a teacher of fourth-year petroleum engineering at the U of A, foresees a shift into "productivity maintenance" mode where the focus is on better use of capital infrastructure already in place and using enhanced oil recovery or other innovations to improve production efficiency from existing wells. He expects greater levels of oversight and tighter enforcement of existing and new regulations because regulators are no longer scrambling to keep pace with activity.

"The industry will need a more skilled and multi-talented workforce, which is lower cost, innovative and motivated to try doing things differently and better than they were done during the boom," Peachey says.

"New grads who want to stay in Alberta will be rehired or hired—at lower salaries than they might have gotten a year or two ago—and developed, and will tend be more conscientious about the environment and responsible operations because they will be working in their home province and here for the long term, not just to make a bundle and leave,” he adds.

Peachey has hired several young engineers into an engineers-in-training program to keep them in the field. "We have to keep them active and learning in the industry so we don't lose them while the industry adjusts and [companies] figure out who they need and where," he says.

Other energy-related graduates will cope with the downturn through the time-honoured method of going back to school to earn further credentials. At the University of Waterloo, engineering geology professor Maurice Dusseault is fielding a surge in requests from graduating students looking to win scarce masters degree research positions. He is also seeing queries from laid-off workers and employed people facing uncertainty.

Current students are also struggling to find opportunities. Waterloo students do six co-op terms of four months each with industry, but a lot of those jobs dried up last year.

"Take for example a big company like Shell Canada," Dusseault says. "In good times, they're going to hire 100 students each term from Waterloo. In bad times they're not going to go down to zero, but they may restrict their programs to, say, 40 or 50 students a term."

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