New graduates need to manage expectations in the downturn

'Students should be encouraged to find a job – any job – in their chosen industry and work their way up through the field,' SAIT academic VP Brad Donaldson advises new graduates.

'Today, we’re re-adjusting and managing expectations', says SAIT academic VP

Graduates are being encouraged to find a job — any job — in their chosen industry and work their way up through the field, during tougher economic times. (Shutterstock)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Calgary in a downturn. Not the best time to be looking for a job. As thousands of young people prepare to enter the workforce, we asked some folks at Calgary's academic institutions what they're telling young people these days.  Here's what the folks at SAIT had to say.

Calgarians are resilient people. 

As evidenced by previous downturns — an inevitable part of our economic cycle — we rally and evolve through the hard times and enjoy the perks that come with the peaks.

But most students coming to SAIT have never experienced an economic slump like this before.

The 2008 recession — the most recent in memory for our younger student population — was an overarching financial crisis, not specific to oil and gas. This downturn is an industry-specific challenge, yet one that will have ripple effects into other sectors. This will surely have students enrolled in many programs questioning their choices. Should I stay in my program? Will I get a job after I graduate?

The short answer is yes.

Our role as educators is to help all students take a longer term view. By the nature of our hands-on learning model, most of our students will be here two to four years — a lot can change in that time.

We need to help them understand the world they face after graduation will be different than today.

It's important to look forward with optimism and know whatever cycle we're in, having an education positions you better than someone who doesn't. That positioning is beyond the technical specifics of a program. It's also about establishing the foundation of life-long learning and the ability to expand one's capacity to grow their knowledge base and develop an entrepreneurial approach to their chosen career.

It provides the vision to see opportunities that might otherwise not have been evident.

Transformation of a sector

One of the challenges in the energy sector in the past 10 years was salaries and wages inflating beyond the value of the job description.

Students were leaving SAIT midway through a program and starting in their "dream job" at the age of 20.

Today, we're re-adjusting and managing expectations. Students should be encouraged to find a job — any job — in their chosen industry and work their way up through the field. Everyone needs to earn their way to highly coveted positions. The "new normal" is in fact old — learn the business and advance your career. This is what will develop a strong and stable industry.

I believe this is a transformation of the sector and that the up arc of the next cycle will be different.

The fluctuating economy means — more so than ever — companies are looking to be more efficient and productive with their day-to-day business. Education and training plays an important role in that. The collaborative nature of post-secondary allows students to work together with their peers to learn, grow and expand their minds.

Bold ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit remain vital even in an economic downturn. (Getty Images)

Finding the opportunity

What is the greatest opportunity for students? Be adaptable. Be creative. Be open to opportunity.

There is a continued need for great ideas.

With SAIT's curriculum and the content we deliver, our focus on applied education, research and industry partnerships provides opportunities for an innovative, creative education. Successful graduates of the future will be the ones who bring that creativity and energy along with their parchment. It's up to us as educators to continue to provide students with a post-secondary environment where thinking can be fostered and developed.

Necessity is the mother of invention and that has never been more true in Alberta.

Evolution of partnerships

I am confident Calgarians will join together to work through this difficult time.

Industry, government and post-secondaries all have to evolve — this is not the time to maintain status quo. SAIT works directly with business and industry sectors to understand what they are looking for in graduates. We evolve and design our programs to meet those needs.

The current economic state creates an increased need for SAIT to have effective partnerships with every sector we serve. This is a key strategy for us.

Students hear directly from industry about what's happening in the workforce. The more connected we are with Calgary companies and businesses, the better we can translate industry needs into our courses so our graduates are able to immediately contribute when they step into the workforce. It also ensures our industries can retain the highly skilled workers they need to grow and thrive as we emerge from the downturn.

The value of education

I fundamentally believe the value of post-secondary education is clear.

We'll still see students wanting to pursue their passion — whether they are just out of high school, changing careers or mature students brushing up on new technologies.

The economy is changing in Alberta, but one thing our students can count on to remain the same is the entrepreneurial spirit and bold thinking that's seen our province buck up and emerge from tough times before — better, stronger and smarter.

At SAIT, that's what we tell our students. Good times or bad times — education is never wasted.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Brad Donaldson is Vice President Academic at SAIT. He was previously Dean of the School of Manufacturing and Automation, and has 20 years of experience in engineering and manufacturing.