Oil worker re-skilling program pushing for expansion, provincial partnership

A Calgary-based program that trains former oil and gas workers in tech sector skills is looking for funding to increase enrolment after overwhelming demand during their trial run.  

Federal government grant funds Calgary program to retrain energy workers in tech

Demand is high for a program that retrains oil and gas workers for the tech sector. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

A Calgary-based program that trains former oil and gas workers for the tech sector is looking for funding to increase enrolment after overwhelming demand during its trial run. 

EDGE UP, facilitated by Calgary Economic Development, is a pilot project run with $1.5 million in grants through the federal government's partnership with the Future Skills Centre. It offers free education to displaced energy workers with an engineering or similar background to train them to work in the technology industry. 

The organizers ran two groups of 50 people through the six-month program this year after receiving 1,300 applications for the 100 spots. They're looking to expand the project in 2021 — and they'll be knocking at the doors of all levels of government for that extra help.

"When we take a look at oil and gas and a workforce that has provided so much to our economy, if we can't re-engage that talent it's a loss for us," Jeanette Sutherland, the director of the program, said.  

"We can take a mid-career worker that has been very ingrained and entrenched in one industry and help them pivot with upskilling to the needs of a new economy." 

Job placement

Alberta's government has spent a lot of oxygen on the province's growing technology sector this year. Sutherland says her team will be making a partnership pitch to the province in the new year. 

The job placement rate after completing the program is currently around 60 per cent, spanning everything from software development to working in digital arts.  

Tech jobs in Alberta are projected to hit 77,500 between now and 2023 — a digital transformation forecasted at $18.4 billion from 2019 to 2022, according to Calgary Economic Development. 

The Future Skills Centre says the program is halfway through its funding cycle and ramping up the scale is an option being considered. 

"We are very pleased with the program. EDGE UP has performed very well under exceptionally trying circumstances — not only in Canada as a whole, but especially in Alberta," a statement sent to CBC News reads. 

"The possibility of bringing in more participants, or extending the EDGE UP model to other sectors, is an exciting one, and we will have a better idea of whether or not that is feasible sometime in early 2021."

A graduate

Don Russell worked as a mechanical engineer in the oil sector for years before deciding it wasn't a secure career anymore. 

"This not only gave me new skills and gave me a bunch of confidence and got me into a new sector, but the future was a little bit brighter because you're not as tied to construction and oil and gas," he said. 

Russell got a job with Blackline Safety after going through EDGE UP that combines his new tech knowledge with his experience in oil and gas. He says it's important that more workers are afforded the opportunity he had. 

"I got really lucky and I'm really, really, really, thankful." 

Low demand, a global price war and the effects of COVID-19 all dealt blows to the province's oil and gas sector over the past year. 

Several prominent companies cut their capital spending, merged or scaled back plans for 2020. Thousands of workers were laid off as a result.

Sutherland thinks those struggles will drive enrolment even higher next year, and she's concerned without extra support EDGE UP will have to turn more needy workers away.


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