Brendon Cunningham used to see a future in oil-stained coveralls. Now he sees a business suit.

The 25-year-old says he was one of the first to lose his oilsands job with Shell Albian Sands when Alberta's economy spiraled downward in early 2015. 

Less than a week after being laid off, Cunningham said he decided to enroll in a business program at the University of Alberta.

"It was an eye-opener that I needed to go back to school," he said. "Now, looking back, it's more a blessing in disguise, but it didn't feel like that at the time."

In January, the unemployment rate in Alberta hit a 20-year high at 7.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Another 10,000 workers lost their jobs, pushing Alberta's unemployment rate above the national average for the first time since 1988.

"We know it is a very difficult time across Alberta — the Alberta government itself has to look at some hard decisions and its bottom line as well," said Mike Berezowsky, with Alberta Human Services.

It's important for people to consider re-training and further education so they can pursue jobs outside of their current field, Berezowsky said.

"The last thing we want to do is prepare people for jobs that don't exist." 

Post-secondary education in demand

In Edmonton, the number of students enrolling in advanced education has jumped at almost every post-secondary institution.

In just one year, from 2014 to 2015, NAIT received an additional 2,061 applications for credit programs.

But many applicants are bound to be disappointed. 

The total number of applicants to NAIT programs has risen almost 50 per cent over what the school received five years ago.

In fact, NAIT now receives more than four applications for every one student accepted, according to spokesperson Frank Landry.

MacEwan University also accepted 356 more students in 2015 than in 2014, a common trend during economic downturns, according to MacEwan's provost and vice president academic John Corlett.

"Education matters and I think when the economy goes sour, people kind of get back to first principles and think, 'Now's my time,' " Corlett said.  "Education remains, as much as it always has, the key to prosperity and the key to stability."

Difference in number of students who enrolled, 2014 to 2015

  • NorQuest College: +1,332
  • Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT): +576
  • MacEwan University: +356
  • Concordia: +120 in the Winter term; +184 in the Fall term

At NorQuest College, the number of students who enrolled increased by 1,332 for the 2015/2016 academic year. The number of applications for 2016/2017 also jumped by more than 20 per cent. 

For Cunningham going back to school is his way of creating a future with greater stability and more peace of mind. He adds he has no plans of returning to the trades when he graduates in 2019.

"I'd never been laid off before, and I'd never been fired," he said. "It was a really terrible feeling and my biggest thing is I didn't want to feel like that again."