Starting from the Bottom
Times are tough, and if you’re just beginning in the energy business, you know it’s an industry that can provide a rewarding and challenging career – eventually. But there are big hurdles along the way, and they don’t get much bigger than trying to start
The industry still offers rewarding, challenging careers, but how do you get your foot on that first rung in a slump?
Alberta Oil finds out what new graduates can do to stand out
BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2013, if you were finishing first-year courses in the engineering program at the University of Calgary, you probably began examining the various streams that might carry you through to graduation and to your future. Electrical, chemical and software engineering were all good options, but after much consideration you signed up for the oil and gas engineering program. There were jobs in the energy industry, you reasoned, and the projections were rosy, both for the price of oil and for employment growth. How quickly things can change.
Now it’s the spring of 2016 and you’re graduating in two months. Not only are your employment prospects bleak, but people more than twice your age, with decades of experience, are losing their jobs. It’s daunting. The price of oil is as low as it’s been since the turn of the century. Even lower is your morale as you half-heartedly scroll through anemic online job boards. On top of all this, you now have to grapple with the existential issue of how oil and gas will figure into our carbonconstrained future. Yet you chose oil and gas engineering – it’s now your area of expertise – and, despite the ups and downs and an uncertain future, you still know the energy industry can provide a viable and rewarding career.
So how do you get started during a downturn? What do you need to do to stand out when there are far more applicants than jobs? “You have to work harder,” says Colleen Bangs, manager of Career Services at the University of Calgary. Indeed, gone are the days when a well-paying job could be got with a canned resumé and a 15-minute telephone interview. As Bangs explains, today’s graduates need to thoroughly research their prospective employers and every cover letter and resumé needs to be customized accordingly. Applicants need to show, as much as possible, that they know the company’s culture and values. “You need to speak their language,” says Bangs.
This means putting more emphasis on networking. While previous graduating classes could often get by with their parchment paper and a resumé, today’s students need to develop relationships with people in the industry. Unless they’re
already well-connected, many students will have to resort to the dreaded cold call. It’s an intimidating prospect for many students, but Bangs encourages them to pick up the phone. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” she asks. Also important, Bangs explains, are those less-obvious, everyday networking opportunities that come from conversations with family, friends and professors. “Every interaction is a potential opportunity,” she says, “and every impression matters.”
Social media, of course, is the platform where many of those interactions and impressions will take place in 2016. Even though they’re well aware that recruiters check the content on social media accounts, many students continue to post unfavorable material. As Bangs explains, students need to manage their privacy settings and they need to use social media to their advantage to demonstrate that they’re actively engaged with industry. To this end, some social media accounts are better than others. Which one is the best? According to Bangs, young professionals will likely benefit most if they focus on building a comprehensive professional profile on LinkedIn.
That comprehensive profile will be easier to build for students who’ve already made connections through life experiences. “Recruiters,” says Bangs, “want to hire interesting people.” Those experiences include, among other things, involvement with on-campus clubs, volunteering and international travel. According to Bangs, these experiences in turn help students identify and develop the personal skills – initiative, ethics and adaptability, among others – that are coveted by employers.
Those personal skills have proven invaluable for Olu Ojo, a third-year undergraduate student pursuing a double major in engineering and economics at the University of Calgary. In May, he begins a 16-month internship with Shell Canada at its Athabasca Oil Sands Project.
When asked about his career development strategy, Ojo explains that, despite having a strong passion for the energy industry (the result of early exposure in Nigeria), he has intentionally pursued opportunities that contribute to the breadth of his knowledge and experience. His engineering and economics programs, for example, are both generalist in nature. Further, by taking advantage of opportunities to study abroad in Germany and Hong Kong, Ojo has developed a greater sense of cultural awareness. Although he’s busy, he’s managed to also volunteer with UNESCO. Ojo believes this breadth of life experiences makes him more competitive in a tight labor market. “It’s not just about academics,” he says. “Energy companies are looking for that all-around person who can work with different people.”
Persistence has also helped in Ojo’s case. When a Shell Canada recruiter was on campus, Ojo was unable to stay for the entire presentation because of a scheduling conflict with a lab class. Rather than sneak out of the room quietly, Ojo recalls that he first stood and publicly asked the recruiter for a business card. Later he followed up with an email, but received no reply. When a second email also brought no reply, he called the recruiter. For his persistence, Ojo was rewarded with the internship.
While Ojo intentionally pursued a variety of experiences to increase his breadth of knowledge, Frank (Wu) Wang has taken the opposite approach. As a second-year student in the Power Engineering Technology program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Wong has landed a four-month summer student position at Shell Canada’s Jumping Pound Gas Complex. The on-the-job operating experience is required in order to obtain a more advanced Power Engineer’s Certificate of Competency – and chances are good that the position will seamlessly translate into permanent employment. How did Wang do this? He maintained a 4.0 grade-point average, he mastered the technical content and he sent out more than 50 resumes.
Wang came to the Power Engineering Technology program following a ten-year career in human resources administration. “I made a three-year plan,” he says, referring to his decision to make a middle-age career change. Although the price of oil declined dramatically during the first year of his program, scaring away some of his peers, Wang didn’t waiver. “If you choose this as your career,” he says, “you need to stay focused and put all your effort into it.”
Daniel Marsh is also a second-year student at SAIT. He holds a business degree
“... you need to stay focused and put all your energy into it.” – Frank (Wu) Wang, SAIT Engineering Student
but decided to upgrade his skills in the Petroleum Engineering Technology program so that he could take advantage of opportunities he was seeing in the energy industry. “When I started in September of 2014,” he says, “the market was still active and industry was very busy.” By taking advantage of contacts he had established during previous work experience, Marsh was able to take a first-year summer position as a technical services analyst with Calfrac Well Services. He’s currently in line to return to that position when he completes the second and final year of his program.
Marsh believes that graduates need to be flexible to land work during a downturn. “You have to be willing to take on any type of position,” he says, “and then you need to show commitment to that company.” Marsh acknowledges that it’s a tough employment environment because new graduates are entering the workforce at the same time that more experienced workers are losing their jobs. When asked how he and his peers are coping, Marsh explains that they know the industry is cyclical. For that reason, he says, “it’s nice to have the support of our instructors and mentors who’ve been here before.”
The above success stories illustrate that it’s possible to graduate with a job even during a downturn. Yet it must be acknowledged that many students – including those who’ve done everything right – will graduate without a job. What should they be doing as they continue to search for a job in the energy industry?
“Students need to start by modifying their expectations,” says Neera Arora, Associate Dean of the MacPahil School of Energy at SAIT. As she explains, students will need to make tough concessions, not only on salary expectations and level of responsibility, but also on the possibility of relocating to another part of the province.
Arora also points out that energy companies are diversifying their operations to stay competitive and she believes that students need to do the same. “This is a time for you to diversify your skill set,” she says, adding that companies are still on campus recruiting new graduates. Some students may even decide to stay in school, forgoing the job search altogether. According to Arora, it’s a viable strategy to deal with the downturn. “This is a time when students can add to their credentials by laddering into a degree,” she says.
As for those students who are still looking for work in May, they‘ll have to contend, not only with a bottoming market, but also with a lack of empathy from peers, friends and family who might have a dim view of the energy industry. Schadenfreude is never pleasant, but Marsh says it helps to keep things in perspective. As he explains, students in the Petroleum Engineering Technology program complete a broad range of courses that prepare them to constructively take ownership of all aspects of the energy industry, including the social and environmental sides of the business. “It’s our responsibility,” he says, referring to today’s cohort of graduates, “to develop this industry in a sustainable manner.”
And what about those students who cannot find any work in their field of study? If all else fails, they may have to consider employment in other industries. Although that will be disappointing for many students, Arora explains that a temporary job in an unrelated field is better than no job at all. “Every job in industry,” she says, “will lead to something good.” Bangs agrees. It’s not a bad thing,” she says, “to take work outside the sector. But be mindful of how it’ll be transferable for when things pick up.”
For his part, Ojo encourages his peers to keep trying even if their job search in the energy industry seems hopeless. “The applications, interviews and interaction are valuable even if you don’t get a job,” he says. That may be little solace to those worried about how they are going to pay the bills after convocation. Indeed, it’s difficult to be persistent when you are hearing stories about job losses across the sector.
While she acknowledges that these are trying times, Arora says that the energy market will stabilize. She understands that students and graduates are anxious, but she encourages them to remain optimistic despite what they are seeing and hearing in the media. “The oil and gas industry – the energy sector – is here to stay,” she says.
“The applications, interviews and interaction are valuable even if you don’t get a job.”
– Olu Ojo, University of Calgary Engineering/Economics Student