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Home Alumni Alumni News Drilling down: the current reality of a career in the energy industry

Drilling down: the current reality of a career in the energy industry

Signs at Calgary's gateways welcome visitors to "Be a part of the energy." It's a standing invitation, but these uncertain economic times have many Calgarians feeling more than a little anxious about what's on the horizon.

As the price of oil stumbles along a downward trajectory, industry insiders stand vigilant. They watch and wonder just how bad things might get before they get better. Things will get better. The oil and gas industry is cyclical in nature. The challenge for all of us is to remember that.

Video: Drilling Down

A bit of a low

Two years ago, Daniel Marsh left his job as a field operator in the energy services sector to enter SAIT's Petroleum Engineering Technology program (PT). "I had applied to the program before but it just didn't work out timing wise for me then," says Marsh, who opted to pursue a degree in business first. Timing is everything.

Now well equipped with some field experience and the technical know-how to advance in the oil and gas industry, Marsh is ready to enter the job market. It's not opportune timing to be sure, but he isn't particularly fazed by the challenge. "My family has been involved in this industry for nearly as long as there's been an oil and gas industry in Alberta, so it's not our first downturn," says Marsh. "It's unfortunate that I'm graduating at a time where the market is in a bit of a low, but it's just one of those things."

An episode of déjà vu?

A "bit of a low" might be a bit of an understatement. The price of crude oil has plummeted a brow-sweating 70 per cent since Marsh and his peers in PT started their classes. While they've been fortifying their education to jumpstart a career, an estimated 100,000 people working in the energy industry across Canada have been laid off over the last year. Anyone old enough to remember the economic tailspin of the 1980s may be dreading an episode of déjà vu, but Calgary Economic Development's Business Development Manager - Energy, Guillermo Sordo, points out some fundamental differences between then and now.

"Comparing scenarios is common for all of us, as we often think what happened in the past will predict future outcomes," says Sordo. "At the emotional level [the current situation] will feel similar for people that are being laid off during these challenging times." The hard numbers tell a softer, less dramatic story. "Unemployment levels in the '80s reached 12 per cent. We are sitting at seven per cent right now," he says. The price of real estate is another good indicator as to how a local economy is faring. In the 1980s, property values in the city plunged as much as 25 per cent in just three years. "Calgary has only experienced a two per cent decrease in 2015, with economists forecasting the possibility of an additional two per cent this year," says Sordo. "So on paper it does not look as bad as it was in the '80s."

Things evolve, they change and shift, and the dynamics that determine the price of oil at any given time are themselves a moving target, with global influence. Many in the know attribute the current slump to an unexpected glut in supply, a particularly strong U.S. dollar, a slowdown in demand (instead of the expected growth), and considerable uncertainty over the volume of crude oil that could be coming from the Persian Gulf now that sanctions against Iran have been lifted.

"If we are to learn anything from this crisis," says Sordo, "it's that policy makers have to pay closer attention to macroeconomic trends, and Alberta has to maintain a competitive cost structure for energy projects." He says the oilsands are inherently a high-cost resource, and emphasis on technological advancements that make us more efficient and cost-competitive will provide an additional cushion to external price shocks down the line. The same is true for unconventional resources where the successful implementation of new technologies is critical to stay ahead of the cost curve. "Technical education and entrepreneurialism will be key to our future economic success," Sordo says.

Humility and pereverance

Alan Jack (PT '83), Academic Chair of Petroleum Engineering Technology in SAIT's MacPhail School of EnergyAlan Jack (PT '83) is Academic Chair of the Petroleum Engineering Technology program in SAIT's MacPhail School of Energy. It's the same program that Daniel Marsh and approximately 150 others are getting ready to graduate from in the spring, and Jack is as hopeful for this graduating class as he would be for any other, in any other economic circumstances. "People read the newspapers so they think everything is crashing," says Jack. "Well there are still millions of barrels of oil being produced here." There's still an industry and as long as that's the case, there will still be jobs - for the right candidates.

"We set the students up to succeed in any environment," says Jack. "Our applied learning approach teaches them exactly what's going on in the industry right now; [using] leading-edge technology so they are immediately useful and relevant when they graduate."

Employers know and appreciate SAIT's approach. "From the Petroleum Technology program, the employment rate straight out of school is still very high," says Jack. Not everyone will head straight to work. "Some of our graduates may elect to continue their studies and get their engineering degrees through one of the School's transfer programs." Ongoing education can be a great way to delay entry into a soft market where landing that dream job right away may be somewhat unrealistic.

This is a time for humility and perseverance. Strategic job hunters will focus on getting their foot in the door right now. Jack assures graduates that getting a job in the industry - any job, really - is a safe bet for future opportunity. "You might be overqualified for the job now, but things turn around and when they do, you're in." Those who have proven their worth are likely to advance fairly quickly. Companies will be looking to fill a plethora of recently created job vacancies all the way up to the top.

A dynamic industry

Keith MacPhailKeith MacPhail (PT '81, DA '07, HOND '12), a renowned SAIT alumnus and respected local oilman, knows the cyclical nature of the oil and gas business about as well as anybody can. After SAIT, he went on to complete his engineering degree at Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology, only to return and land an entry-level job in the industry in 1984 - in the midst of the worst downturn Calgary had ever seen.

"I remember sending out 40 resumés, maybe more," says MacPhail. "I didn't get many responses." With patience and persistence, he eventually landed a job through connections he had established while working in the field as a teenager. He would go on to enjoy a highly successful career spanning 35 years in oil and gas.

Over the course of that career, MacPhail has experienced his share of industry highs and lows. "We're in a commodity business. It's cyclical. There are going to be ups and downs," says MacPhail. "Every time you're in a bit of a low spot, you just have to kind of look over the horizon and see that there is still a significant demand for what we find and produce. There's still a career or two to be had in this industry for sure."

That's a good thing because future graduate Daniel Marsh is ready to get to work in the industry, volatility and all. "When times are good the job opportunities are seemingly endless," says Marsh. "When we're in a bit of a bust, like right now, you take whatever is available."

The challenge is to remain mindful of the one scenario when you're in the throes of the other. It's a tough one for every generation. "It seems like most of us have this optimistic view of things and once we're in an up cycle, it's never going to go down again," says MacPhail. "[We think] it's never going to end."

"It's such a dynamic industry," says Marsh. "If anything, I think this downturn has been a great reminder of that for all of us."

Written by Julie Sengl
George Webber Photos
Illustrations © Carl Wiens, i2iart.com