Thursday, 19 June 2014

Labour Market Trends and Rising Stars in Fort McMurray - Part 2


Today's post is from Amy Roy Gratton, Experiential Learning Coordinator with CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.

I often get the question, “what do you do all summer when there are no students around?” I’m fortunate to be able to explore careers first hand in order to be more knowledgeable about career options and labour market information when I advise students. 

This summer I was thrilled to participate the Oil Sands Careers Education Program hosted by Inside Education where I got to explore Alberta’s oil sands in Fort McMurray. I love Inside Education because their programming includes multiple perspectives. This was particularly important with the oil sands where debate continues daily regarding its environmental and economic impacts. In my last blog post I talked about life as a commuting employee – but that was just half of the experience. In addition the tour also explored educational, government, industry, human resources and labour market perspectives.

The packed two-day tour began with an overview of labour market trends over the next 20 years. According to the human resources professionals at Cenovus, a Canadian oil company employing about 5000 people in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the biggest threat to oil sands production is a human resources problem: not having enough skilled workers to make the work happen. Age-related attrition caused by a retiring workforce means creative strategies are needed to develop flexible work options for retiring employees who are valuable in mentoring new employees. There are also the usual concerns such as turnover; however, it’s not just local competitors offering enticing opportunities, it’s now a global market making offers that can’t be refused.


It seems the most common career shortages that we hear about are trades, science and technology. However, on this tour I was encouraged to see the variety of jobs that exist in supporting roles within the oil sands industry. All disciplines including communications, aboriginal relations, workplace health and wellness, information systems, finance, environmental, policy development and distribution are needed, valued and important.

If you’d like to learn more about the variety of people that make the oil industry work, the May 2014 issue of Oil Week Magazine highlights 12 Rising Stars who are key contributors. Not only did they profile a variety of careers, they also emphasized the career theory CAPS supports: that we are not one dimensional people; we have multiple interests and multiple goals, beyond work, that are just as important as the work that we do.

Although there seems to be an impression that people with less than a high school education can find lucrative work in Fort McMurray; this is a myth. The message we heard over and over again is that oil companies need trained (and trainable) people who can learn fast and who won’t cause costly mistakes. Our first stop, to reinforce this point, was a visit to Keyano College. At the college we received an overview of Heavy Equipment Technician, Power Engineering, and the Crane and Hoisting Equipment Operator and the Environmental Technology Program – which now includes a wildlife component mandated by the courts after the tailings pond incident of 2008. The tour was fascinating for me because of the cross over between our university and college programming.  Louis Dingley, Chair of University Studies Science and Environmental Technology, shared a statistic that surprised me: for every Professional Engineer, three Engineering Technologists are needed to support that role which shows how interdependent colleges and universities really are.

Keyano College bring hands on education to another level with their Oil Sands Power and Process Engineering Lab, a $29-million dollar facility that allows students to operate a plant from start-up to shut-down on a daily basis. At a real plant in Fort McMurray there is no time for emergency shut downs. Real shut downs waste thousands of dollars. This plant allows these emergencies to be simulated and training to be tailored around the student’s skill level to prepare them for any scenario. One of the instructors – a retired Process Engineer, was the perfect example to illustrate the labour market trends we discussed at the beginning of our tour: he had enjoyed an international career and was scooped up out of retirement to pass on his experience to a new generation of process engineers.  

Although technical training like this is important, the ability to communicate was highlighted as the most important skills beyond any other. Complex organizations have a dynamic mix of people making them run effectively. The ability to communicate with inter-disciplinary colleagues and cross-functional teams means everyone from public relations to distribution is working toward the same goal, despite their differing viewpoints. Professionals need to be knowledgeable in their field but also need to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and explain their knowledge in a non-technical way.

Although I was aware that soft skills are important in the workplace, hearing this message from a very technical, industry perspective was great reinforcement for the advising I do. The whole experience was myth busting and enlightening. To challenge your own biases toward the oil industry and create your own memories, consider contacting the University of Alberta Oil Sands Student Delegation to learn how you can explore Fort McMurray and see what the big town that has it all has to offer. 

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