Across Canada’s Prairies, a question is weighing heavily on the minds of many: “What if the oil industry never really comes back?”
The last few years in Alberta have been filled with pain. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost while more than a quarter of Calgary’s downtown offices sit empty.
As students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) prepare for exams, they’re also thinking about what job opportunities they may have after graduation.
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“Considering what’s going on in the economy, I don’t know where we could end up but I wanted to make sure I had a chance when I started looking for work,” said Aisha Fox-Chege.
Students, like Fox-Chege, don’t expect there will be many jobs for them in oil and gas, which is why SAIT is developing new programs to prepare students for emerging opportunities in fields like digital technology, automation and renewable energy.
Alberta’s economy is trying to diversify too, many of the employees at Calgary’s ATTAbotics came from oil and gas. The company manufactures automated storage and retrieval systems for use in e-commerce and is currently hiring between three and five new employees a week.
The company’s founder and CEO says without the slowdown in the oil and gas sector, they wouldn’t have been able to grow.
“To be able to pull people out of the traditional oil-and-gas compensation models that they’ve been receiving for years to come and join a risky robotic startup would have been challenging,” said Scott Gravelle.
Through the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF), Calgary is investing in companies like ATTAbotics to stimulate badly needed growth and create jobs, all the while, knowing that these emerging sectors won’t easily replace the industry this city was built on.
“$100 million [from the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund] won’t save Alberta if oil and gas disappeared tomorrow,” said Barry Munro, OCIF board chair, “but I don’t believe that it will.”
Despite the push to diversify, there’s still an unspoken understanding in this province that we need oil to recover. It’s why political leaders, like Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, continue to fight for things like pipelines.
Imre Szeman, a University of Waterloo professor whose research focuses on how countries can best transition from fossil fuels to new forms of energy, says governments need to make sure they’re looking forward without spending too much time fighting for what worked in the past.
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“I think that we have become a little bit too static in the way that we view the present and we are falling behind in changing our societies and also taking up the opportunities that this transition affords us.”
Szeman says that while countries like Germany, China and India are actively planning their transition away from fossil fuels, Canada is not and that may soon leave us behind.
“I worry that Canada will be on the outside looking in by 2050, when other countries will have developed the technologies that will be powering society by that point.”