About twenty per cent of engineering students at Memorial University in St. John's are still in search of a work term for the 2016 winter semester, as the slumping oil and gas industry provides fewer placements than previous years.

"It's not only the downturn here that we're seeing in the province, it's other regions as well," Greg Naterer, MUN's dean of engineering, told CBC Radio's On The Go.

"We currently have only 14 students in work terms in Alberta, and seven in Houston. In the past we've had more than 65 students on work terms in both of these areas."

Apple vs. oil 

Memorial University engineering society students

Some MUN Engineering Society students at the Charity Winter Ball fundraiser. (MUN Engineering Society)

As it becomes harder to find work terms in oil and gas, as well as mining, Naterer said the university has reached out to new sectors.

"The way we've made up for this shortfall is we've pursued other new employers," he said.

"For example, we have over 40 new employers, including Apple, Tesla and others outside the province."

Students have to complete four work terms during their studies in order to graduate. Naterer said only one student in jeopardy of not meeting that requirement has yet to be placed, but he is confident that will happen.

Greg Naterer Dean of Engineering Memorial University

Dean of Engineering Greg Naterer says about one third of engineers in Canada are set to retire by 2020. (Memorial University)

Naterer said overall, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science expects to have 400 students in work terms this semester, although approximately 90 other students are still unplaced.

Engineering expansion

Amid the work shortfalls, the university continues an eight-year expansion of the engineering faculty that aims to graduate more students per year by 2020, in both graduate and undergraduate programs.

The annual number of undergraduates will climb from 2012's graduating class of 170 to 250 graduates by 2020. The number of grad students will nearly double from 360 to 700 over the same period. 

Included in those expansions is a brand-new core sciences building with a price tag of $325 million, which is expected to be finished in 2019.

"This is really in response to the needs of not only the province, but the country," said Naterer.

'This is really in response to the needs of not only the province, but the country.' - Greg Naterer

"All long-term labour market studies show that the growth in engineering graduates is going to be required to address attrition in industry, and the growing needs of our evolving technical world," he said, adding that about one third of the Canadian engineering workforce is expected to retire by 2020.

Naterer said that projection is particularly important here, where one third of the engineering work done in Newfoundland and Labrador is by firms based outside the province.

"If we had sufficient engineering capacity, we would be able to do a lot more of that work within the province," he said.

"Creating jobs, starting up companies, rather than having it outsourced to other jurisdictions."

MUN's expansion could help diversify the provincial economy, according to Naterer.

"There are many studies that show that really a key to enabling a knowledge based economy, and an innovative economy, competing globally … engineers are really important in that regard."