Dear Minister Schweitzer: ‘People diversification’ can capture the imagination of industry and investors

Growing Forward Together: The Next-Gen Alberta Advantage report will be released later this month.

To: Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation

From: Bill Whitelaw, proud Albertan privileged to work in energy and agriculture


Dear Minister...

Following up to a previous memo.

I know economic diversification is top-of-mind for you and the Cabinet now.

Here's the thing: recently, I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. 

I will let you know...:)

Economic diversification, I suppose, is a little like the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. Particularly when you have to account for how people factor into diversification thinking.

That raises the question of which comes first: people diversification or economic diversification?

Unfortunately, Amazon can't help us out here, Minister, but perhaps some good old-fashioned Alberta ingenuity can.

Think Olds College and its new post-diploma agricultural technology program. It's a cool, future-focused program designed to feed Canada's booming agri-food sector with the right talent as it transforms itself, with “agtech” being a key transition driver. While the agri-food sector has always been technologically oriented, there’s an understanding among all key players — including your government — that the pace of change (and concomitant adoption dynamics) requires some innovative acceleration. That will mean accelerating people and their skills.

From that people perspective, think about BRN.

BRN is an oil and gas professional; he has worked both domestically and internationally and has a pretty impressive CV. He has undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees and has worked in oilfields around the world. But the “oil and gas professional” label has an unfortunate way of masking a skill and experience set that's so critical to Alberta's diversification journey.

You see, BRN is an emissions specialist. He's also a sustainability specialist and a data scientist. He understands supply and value chains. He gets mechanical things and understands ecosystems. In short, he’s a pretty bright guy. And he absolutely loves Alberta, as does his family.

He’s also looking to diversify himself — like so many other Albertans. For BRN, agri-food is a pretty obvious choice.

If BRN sounds like a perfect candidate for the Olds College program, you're right. The program would round off BRN's skillset very nicely and help him hit the ground running for a role in agri-food. Within 12 months.

Like a lot of energy professionals, BRN lives in the moment these days, constantly in fear of the fragile balance sheets that render the energy sector something of a house of cards from a career perspective. 

You will recall from my first memo that I described to you a recent ag-energy summit co-ordinated by dozens of stakeholders from both sectors. Entitled Growing Forward Together, the summit focused on job creation and economic diversification, launching off a sustainability platform. There was very powerful and inspirational dialogue about the potential of the two sectors co-defining a strategic path forward.

Summit organizers have people like BRN in mind. And you know as well as I do, there are BRNs aplenty.

We are about to release the summit's white paper shortly; it will make several suggestions to define an ag-energy path forward. But front and centre will be a focus on people and how their individual transformations and transitions will help illuminate the reasons your new ministry was created — with its razor-focus on jobs, the economy and innovation. In fact, people are the foundation for what we think can be a re-imagined next-generation Alberta Advantage — one based more on a “people framework” than a policy framework.

That takes us back to the Olds College program and why it’s the perfect petri dish for your ministry — and other ministries — to demonstrate governments can put their money where their mouth is in the context of recent aspirational announcements. In other words, if we want to get the economic diversification thing down pat, let's move people diversification to the foreground of our discussions.

To that end, here’s the thinking once more: create a special energy specialist cohort for the Olds program. Select the student volunteers carefully and think innovatively about how their tuition could be funded. Study the cohort’s progress carefully in terms of how the students learn — and how they teach in terms of reshaping the curriculum. Of course, this just isn’t about agriculture. Engage with the energy sector for its support; the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada and the Petroleum Services Association of Canada would be good places to start. Talk as well to the team at PetroLMI, which is part of Energy Safety Canada: perhaps there’s a way to innovatively co-offer the program through ESC’s programming and facilities.

What our agri-food sector needs for its future success is a steady stream of human capital, properly trained and equipped, to meet its growth imperatives and opportunities. And what a great message to the rest of Canada and indeed the world: two key sectors collaboratively and seamlessly working together with an economic focus.

The trouble with economic diversification as a macro concept, Minister, is that it can be a little like Swiss cheese: full of holes. People diversification, however, when creatively executed, can capture the imagination of industry and investors — both critical stakeholders in your new ministry’s success — because it makes economic diversification real — and tangible.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO of JWN, as well as executive vice-president, Business Information Group, at Glacier Inc. and managing director of Evaluate Energy, an affiliated energy analytics and research company based in London, UK.

Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.