Lost generation? Recent engineering grads watching opportunities beyond oil and gas

With the industry downturn, recent engineering grads are hoping for oil and gas careers but also exploring other opportunities. L-R: Brogen Bogstie, Jordan Lamoste, Nicole Howorko and Adam Abdelrehim. Image: Tieran Green/JWN

The oil and gas industry has been a constant presence in Nicole Howorko’s life for as long as she can remember.

A life-long Albertan, she was born in Edmonton and raised in Calgary. Her father, who runs a pipeline inspection company, first stoked her interest in the oilpatch. Her brother, a graduate of the University of Calgary’s mechanical engineering program, also works in the industry. Oil and gas is part of their DNA.

“Watching both of them, the industry seemed like an avenue that would be good for me as well,” Howorko says.

She spent two years studying petroleum engineering technology at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary before moving to the University of Calgary for another two years as part of the school’s first group of energy engineering students, who graduated earlier this year. The joint SAIT/U of C program was designed to bridge the gap between a polytechnic diploma and a university degree, helping engineering technology students become fully accredited engineers.

Oil and gas may have been an almost inevitable career choice for Howorko, but the appeal of employment in the industry has taken a hit in recent years for others. The Global Energy Talent Index, a report released earlier this year by Airswift and Energy Jobline, surveyed 16,000 hiring managers and other professionals around the world in different sectors of the energy industry. The findings suggest the industry may struggle to recruit fresh talent in the coming years.

“Young graduates shy away from wanting to be associated with the seemingly older and less eco-friendly oil and gas industry, as opposed to new technologically driven green sectors,” the report says.

PetroLMI, a division of Enform, echoes this point, highlighting a similar trend in its latest labour market outlook for the Canadian oil and gas industry released in March. In the past, young workers have been discouraged from pursuing oil and gas careers during times of economic uncertainty. This most recent downturn, however, has shaken confidence in the industry in a way not seen during 2008-09.

“The bounceback is not the same as it has been in previous downturns, so certainly the growth in employment opportunities will be slower over a longer period of time,” says Carol Howes, Enform’s vice-president of communications and PetroLMI. “We do think this downturn will have a larger impact on the level of interest of young people to get into the industry.”

In its labour outlook, PetroLMI found 4,136 newcomers joined the Canadian oil and gas industry in 2014 as part of a total workforce of 226,459. By 2016, the total labour force had shrunk by over 50,000, while newcomers had decreased to 3,354. In a delayed recovery scenario, the forecast number of new entrants to the industry bottoms out at 3,010 in 2018 before rising slowly to 3,146 by 2021.

In a modest recovery scenario, the number of newcomers hit their low in 2017 at 3,166 and increases to 3,326 by 2021. But regardless of how quickly the industry recovers, the numbers remain well below the pre-downturn numbers.

For more on the latest trends in oil and gas HR, including executive compensation, read the latest Oilweek.

Preliminary results from a labour force survey currently being conducted by PetroLMI offer a glimpse at how the current generation of students and graduates has weathered the tumultuous past few years.

Among the 147 people aged 17–24 that responded, 48 per cent said their current employment situation or career plan had been impacted by the downturn, compared to 52 per cent that felt no impact. Notably, the survey also found that 32 per cent were no longer interested in working in the oil and gas industry due to the downturn.

There may be a disconnect between what industry needs and what the younger generation wants. According to Claudine Vidallo, team lead at PetroLMI, the most in-demand positions over the next five years will be service sector jobs, often involving outdoor work and remote locations.

Yet PetroLMI has found that newcomers to the industry prefer indoor positions and high-tech work, as opposed to more traditional oil and gas jobs. At the same time, they are more interested in sustainability and renewable energy, and they want oil and gas employers to align more closely with their own values.

“There’s a certain perception that really needs to be addressed in terms of the kind of work that they can do in the oil and gas industry,” Howes says. “It is a very highly technical, innovative industry, so many of the characteristics that they’re looking for in a company do exist.

Unfortunately, whether rightly or wrongly, some have a perception that has dissuaded them that their values can be aligned with what the oil and gas industry offers.”

Alberta’s post-secondary institutions have also taken note of this increased interest in sustainability and renewable energy. In Edmonton, NAIT has seen enough demand for its alternative energy program that the school will be increasing its student intake in January 2018. However, Stewart Cook, dean of NAIT’s School of Applied Sciences and Technology, cautions that this growth does not necessarily come at the expense of other programs. The school saw “decreased pressure” on its petroleum engineering technology program during the downturn, but all of the available student spaces remain full, he says.

NAIT works to ensure its programs remain sensitive to the changing needs of industry. The school conducts annual internal reviews of of its programs to make necessary adjustments. Every five years, a broad selection of industry representatives is brought in to provide feedback on courses. (The petroleum engineering technology program is due for its next five-year review in the 2017-18 school year.)

It’s no less important that the school help students understand the cyclical nature of the industry, Cook says. He often reminds students that even if there are limited job prospects when they enter the petroleum engineering technology program, the industry can still recover by the time they complete their two years of study. The ultimate goal is to ensure students enter and leave the program with a clear view of the industry and what to expect.

“We really try to give them a realistic perspective of where things are at and what they might look like because we want students to stay. We don’t want them to get into the middle of their second year and decide this wasn’t at all what they expected,” Cook says. “We really work at trying to ensure we get the right students in the right program.”

At the U of C many of the students—particularly those from Alberta—are well aware of the capricious nature of the commodity market, according to Bill Rosehart, dean of the university’s Schulich School of Engineering.

“When I talk to students, I find most take a very long-term view,” he says. “My feeling is our students are very committed. They want to be engaged in the energy sector in Alberta, and they want to support the well-being of Alberta. There’s a lot of great engineering happening in this province, and it will continue to happen.”

Rosehart sees a trend toward providing students with a wider perspective on how their chosen engineering disciplines fit together and impact the larger economic, environmental and social pictures.

This interdisciplinary approach is central to the SAIT/U of C energy engineering program, in fact.

Students with a range of polytechnic diplomas—including chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, petroleum engineering and power engineering—can all apply. The university wanted to ensure students would be introduced to the whole sweep of energy subsectors, including renewables and oil and gas.

Many students remain eager to pursue careers in the oil and gas industry, but the energy engineering program’s interdisciplinary approach also reflects the changing realities of the job market.

“Certainly, some students are diversifying where they’re looking for their first job, and we encourage that,” Rosehart says.

Fresh out of school, Howorko is still working on finding a full-time job in the oil and gas industry. But bolstered by her knowledge that the worst of the downturn has likely passed, she’s confident of her prospects and expects to land something within a few months.

In fact, one of the reasons she now holds an engineering degree is precisely because she opted to finish her education instead of joining the labour pool two years ago when oil prices were still in freefall.

“Originally, I was going to wait a couple of years and see how advantageous it would be for me to get a degree working in the company that would hire me, but as I started to see the job market take a downturn, I decided it would be better to go and get my degree right off the bat,” she says. “Now it seems to be picking up, so it worked out well.”

Still, flexibility will be crucial to thriving in the current job market. Howorko is interested in pursuing a career in areas such as exploitation engineering, production engineering and project management, but she also enjoyed learning about environmental engineering in the program.

She would welcome the chance to work in renewable energy should it arise. If the oil and gas industry can’t find space for young talent like Howorko, there are a host of opportunities waiting elsewhere in the wide world of energy.

“I could apply to a mechanical engineering job, I could apply to any kind of oil and gas job, and I could also apply to renewable energy jobs,” she says. “This degree gives me many more opportunities.”

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