The number of applicants in NAIT's alternative energy technology program has nearly tripled since it started in Edmonton in 2011.

As the price of oil slumps and thousands are losing jobs in Alberta, other energy sectors are looking to expand, making the program increasingly popular for prospective students.

Brandon Sandmaier, who is now a second-year student in the program, previously worked for the energy giant Syncrude, and left a job as a heavy equipment technician after 10 years in the industry. At the time, he felt he was taking a risk by leaving his position and choosing to pursue the degree.

"I was definitely not thinking about the decline in oil," he said, admitting he was concerned at the time about sacrificing career prospects and future earnings.

Now Sandmaier has become more optimistic about his new chosen field.

"I feel like there's a lot of opportunity now, more than I expected to be honest," he said. Sandmaier is planning to start a solar installation company with some classmates when they graduate.

solar panel

The last clamp being installed on a solar-snow array. (Supplied/NAIT Alternative Energy Technologies School)

Making a Career Change

James Sandercock, chair of the NAIT program, said Sandmaier's story is similar to that of many students in the program.

"Only two out of 28 students this year are straight out of high school, many people have a trade behind them," he said.

He said students are seeing the program as an avenue to a viable career.

The announcement of renewable energy targets in Alberta, as well as Ontario and Manitoba, "are all very good signs to people that are looking to make a career and are asking if there will actually be a job in the renewable energy sector" when they complete the program, he said.

Sandmaier said he hopes some people losing jobs in his previous field will be able to find new careers in alternative sectors.

"I know a lot of people in my old industry and it's not looking so rosy for them," he said. "I feel like this industry can be a really good bridge for a lot of industries that may be seeing a downturn."

Sandmaier said he hopes he can play a role in "being able to open up an industry for Alberta that can take up that workforce that is struggling right now."