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

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