Dear Mr. Pourbaix: Here’s an innovative approach to staff redeployment

To: Alex Pourbaix & Cenovus executive team

From: Bill Whitelaw, Albertan privileged to work at the intersection of agriculture and energy

Re: Innovative approach to staff redeployment

CC: Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation & Devin Dreeshen, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry

See previous memos: Dear Minister Schweitzer: Alberta's advantage starts with Olds College and Dear Minister Schweitzer: ‘People diversification’ can capture the imagination of industry and investors


First, congratulations on the Husky Energy deal. It is no small feat in these trying times, and unlike many similar corporate M&A efforts, there are plenty of obvious alignments that make the deal logic work. 

But as is equally obvious with this and other consolidations in our sector, there is a cost to Alberta's human balance sheet.

Depending on the analysis, we're told, somewhere north of 2,000 staffers will eventually lose their jobs as the two companies blend into one.

If we start to add up all their degrees and diplomas and professional designations, to say nothing of ongoing professional development investments, the true cost of human capital becomes painfully real. And given that our sector will almost certainly continue to contract before it expands again, its ability to absorb that talent will be challenged. Some folks will land on their feet, of course, but others won't be so fortunate. 

So, what to do?

Here's a novel concept: call up James Benkie. He's the dean of the Werklund School of Agricultural Technology at Olds College. Invite him to your next management meeting to describe two new “agtech” programs launched this year. Of particular interest should be the 12-month post-diploma program. (Here’s a teaser about the programs: https://youtu.be/0H0JE678WIw.)

Dean Benkie will describe for you the forces in Canada's agrifood sector that led to the programs' creation and how Olds consulted and prepped for it. He'll also describe how the programs nest within the College's larger "smart agriculture" initiatives that have positioned it as one of Canada's leading post-secondary institutes in the space.

“Agtech” is in principle not much different than “energytech” in that the digital and technological transformation in both sectors is driven by similar forces. They’re also both umbrella terms that, when parsed out, describe a range of phenomenally innovative approaches to solving key sectoral challenges, many of them related to exponential improvements in environmental performance. A key difference, though, is this: while the energy sector is consolidating, the agrifood sector is growing. Indeed, if anything, the COVID-19 dynamic has had two contrasting impacts. In energy, demand destruction for fossil fuels has taken a toll; while in agrifood — based on the twin imperatives of safety and stability of supply — things are looking much rosier.

But to meet that demand, we need to feed the human capital machine.

Now here's the thing. Many of the men and women within that 2,000-plus staffer contingent could easily pivot into the Olds post-diploma program. It’s designed to welcome learners who come to the table with previous educational credentials in hand and prep them efficiently to enter the workforce at full stride.

As a normal course of action in workforce reductions, many of those Cenovus-Husky staffers qualify for career counseling services to help them help adjust and transition. 

Perhaps this is an opportunity to do more of the bold thinking for which Cenovus is known: why not give them an option to use those dollars to apply to the Olds program — and to do it formally as part of the company’s leadership thinking. They would enter the program equipped as learners, with a diverse set of skills and experiences that lend themselves specifically to the agrifood sector’s needs.

Within 12 months, those who enroll will be primed for a role in the burgeoning agrifood economy and they may well thank Cenovus for the creative career stepping stone.  

By way of example: like the energy sector, agrifood is grappling with digital transformation dynamics, with a particular focus on innovations like artificial/machine intelligence and blockchain applications. Data dynamics, too, are a big driver in both sectors. Linking the digital journey for both is the sustainability push, which sees both sectors responding progressively to forces grouped within ESG thinking.

Here’s another fun fact: both sectors are potentially linked via the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund efforts to underwrite the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) in energy and the Canadian Agrifood Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) in agriculture. Many energy workers who will lose employment in this deal and those who will follow may well have touched a CRIN initiative and could end up working for agri-businesses supporting CAAIN.

The notion that Alberta’s agriculture and energy sectors can do more to collaboratively — and  strategically — help diversify the provincial economy and contribute to its future resilience, will is explored in a recent report. It’s the product of an energy-ag summit held recently. Entitled Growing Forward Together, the summit’s premise was a more aligned effort between the two sectors to improve sustainability performance and economic resilience. The summit’s organizers conceived its launch to align with the provincial government’s recovery program and framework.

If Cenovus is interested in tugging at this thread, Dean Benkie would likely be happy to take the call.

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.

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