Alberta's energy sector: The upside to the downturn

The energy industry continues to shed jobs as oil prices remain at the bottom of the barrel. A province once gridlocked by worker shortages, is suddenly awash in unemployed skilled workers. As Carolyn Dunn writes, that is creating new opportunities for businesses looking to expand.

Massive layoffs in oil and gas create hiring opportunities for expanding businesses

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates 35,000 oilpatch jobs have been shed this year. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Ditch the sticky notes. Bin the markers. Put that giant tablet of paper on a three-legged stand at the back of the storage closet.

Office brainstorming is going high tech and Alberta-based company Nureva is on the cutting edge. 

On the 10th floor of a downtown Calgary high rise, Nureva's director of customer engagement, Rick Kennedy, is demonstrating the product.

"I can pick up an image from my laptop and just drop it in place," Kennedy tells a room of potential customers.   

The image pops up on a six-metre projection on the office wall. Kennedy starts sketching on the projection using only his finger.

The meeting room wall has become a giant touch screen to which anyone on the other side of the room or the other side of the world can contribute. 

'People are No. 1'

Nureva's employees mingle in the crowd, fielding questions and doing one-on-one demonstrations with potential customers. 

"People are No. 1 in a company," Nureva CEO Nancy Knowlton says. "So being able to tap into the right skill set is really crucial to our success."  

The two-year old tech company has 80 employees and plans to add up to 30 more within a year. Not so long ago that would have been a daunting prospect in Calgary.

When oil and gas is on a high it's a very difficult thing to compete against - Nancy Knowlton, CEO Nureva

For years, with oil prices on the rise, energy companies gobbled up employees with skills and experience.  "When oil and gas is on a high, it's a very difficult thing to compete against it," Knowlton says. 

Paul Landry is a recruiter for Nesbitt-Burns and has been head-hunting employment candidates for a decade, "I often joked that companies would often hire candidates with the strongest pulse. That's how desperate people were for talent then," Landry says. "They're not now."

The shift in the hiring market is directly related to slumping oil prices. 

Rick Kennedy, director of customer experience, and Nancy Knowlton, co-founder and CEO of Nureva, believe their company can benefit from more skilled workers in the Calgary market. (Carolyn Dunn )

CAPP on layoffs

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates 35,000 oilpatch jobs have been shed this year.

That punch in the gut to the energy industry has opened doors for other companies, which may have struggled to expand during the boom in oil.

"We're certainly seeing a larger number of people apply for our positions and we're hiring broadly across the company," Knowlton says. 

Many of their applicants are coming from oil and gas. IT specialist Ben Dummler was working for an oil company before he jumped ship to join Nureva.

The instability of the energy industry was more gamble than Dummler was willing to take, "You could definitely feel it every time you went into work. There was talks in the hallway, like 'who's next?'"

Choice abundant

Dummler chose to join a job-hunting market filled with thousands who had been laid off.

"That was intense. You can sometimes see [in online job applications] how many people have applied, so those were always in the hundreds." 

Alberta companies, which for so long faced worker shortages, are finding themselves with something they haven't had in years — choice.  

It is, says recruiter Paul Landry, the upside to the downturn, "Now companies are getting shortlists of 15 qualified people. Their inboxes are getting overflowed with good candidates."


Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email