Industrial education: The oil industry is impacting Alberta’s education system

Albertans have been steadily increasing their reliance on the oil and gas industry and this reliance is spilling over to the culture surrounding post-secondary education. The Government of Alberta is very aware of this, and often references it regarding the increasing strength of trades and skill-based learning at technical institutes and the number of trade workers employed through the industry. However, the government is also forced to deal with the fact that Alberta has the lowest post-secondary participation in the country.

For Albertans aged 18 to 34 years, only 16.9 percent go onto post-secondary education. Part of this is directly attributable to the strength of the oil and gas industry, and its high labour needs. A 2011 Campus Alberta Planning Resource report states, “Alberta has a lower post-secondary participation rate than other provinces due to a number of factors, including our strong labour market and high rates of in-migration of educated people.”

Greg Weadick, Minister of Advanced Education and Technology acknowledges, “I think we probably do see some young people coming out of school and going directly to work for a while. Don’t forget the average age of a PSE student is 28—it isn’t 18 years of age.” The strong labour market allows many to work for a few years before returning to higher education.
Oscar Prada, an Albertan who emigrated from Colombia with his family in 2002, went the path many do after graduating from high school. He enrolled in a post-secondary program for a short while but found that the cost and the level of work expected were just too much. So, he became a general contractor for a firm that built in the oil fields. The hours were long, and the culture was geared towards drugs and alcohol. “I stayed because of the money,” says Prada. “I didn’t want to go back to school and not make money. It was about $25 an hour, I was 19, 20, without experience. I made a lot of money but I spent it.”
His experience was not entirely negative, it just wasn’t encouraging—overwhelmingly, those he worked with didn’t hold education in high regard.  Without a minimum high school requirement, many young men saw the promise of freedom and big money to be very enticing. Prada didn’t encounter too many opportunities to advance his education. His company offered no upgrading or skill training outside of on-the-job experience for him or his peers. It’s a similar story to many who have worked in northern Alberta as part of the oil industry.

Prada did leave the industry to finish his degree, but the decision didn’t come easy. “They want you to stick around,” says Prada. “That way they know they can count on you, so you start building a relationship with them, and then when you want to leave you feel guilty and under pressure. I felt like I was leaving them hanging.”

The disregard for higher education isn’t representative of all companies, or for all positions. Canadian Natural Resources Limited offers $3000 to their employees to upgrade skills or get more education. Tim Reed, a member of the CNRL human resources team explains, “For the most part, employees can decide. We only ask that it be industry-related, so if someone wanted to spend several thousand dollars on studying art history, that may be interesting and a viable pursuit in its own right, but really it doesn’t support the industry at all so that isn’t something we would support. By and large, people spend it on upgrading skills within their own profession.”

Companies can hardly be disgraced for emphasizing educational opportunities that would benefit them, but there should be a critical look at the factors discouraging oil workers from pursuing post-secondary studies, and what companies can do to improve the situation. Not only is it a disservice to the individual, it also does the long-term future of oil exploration in our province a disservice.

It is estimated that Alberta will need 349 000 new workers by 2019, and that this province will see a shortage of 77 000 workers by 2019, of which 80 percent or more will need some form of post-secondary education. If the province continues to ensure the oil and gas industry is dominant in every aspect of the Alberta economic environment, then it would be only logical that the majority of the approximately 250 000 educated workers needed will be in the oil and gas industry. Without an educated population, the industry will start to suffer as it takes critical thinkers, and broadly-educated people to ignite innovation for any industry.
For many graduates of post-secondary in Alberta, there are few other secure opportunities outside of the oil and gas industry. Minister Weadick explains that, due to the scope of the industry, it requires many educated workers. “Each of the major companies in oil and gas have people working, so you’ll find people with sociology degrees helping do market research, people with arts degrees helping design the next advertising campaign, you’ll find people with law degrees working within those companies.”

The oil and gas sector is having a more direct influence on post-secondary institutions through the creation of new programs and technical skill classes to meet the industry’s needs and by funneling funding to create usable research on everything from environmental impact to development to exploratory information.
These new designations are welcome to the industry, and are beneficial for those looking to upgrade skills to move to less physically intensive occupations, but they do take funding away from other programs. As the Alberta government continues to de-fund post-secondary education, new program applications are judged by the enrollment levels they can achieve and the amount of public funding they require.

A program that has a direct industry application and a direct source of students will no doubt be more attractive than a program that fits into a broader, liberal arts environment. “Every year we create new designations—this year we created a new designation: gas compressor technician. We are always looking for an opportunity to provide certification as well so that people can get the appropriate training for the work they are doing,” says Minister Weadick.

With the aggressive growth of reliance on the oil and gas industry, more people will feel the short-term gain of the industry, and lose sight of the long-term loss. The loss of innovation outside of oil and gas, the loss of critical analysis from outside observers as more are economically dependent on its success, and of course the loss of diversification. No doubt Alberta will continue to face similar criticisms that will continue to motivate the drain of educated, critical minds to other provinces where there are opportunities available outside of the oil and gas industry and supported by a culture that understands the big picture.

First published November 2nd, 2011 for VUE weekly Issue 837.


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