Funding dries up for oil worker transition program

Edge Up, run through Calgary Economic Development, helps displaced energy sector workers pivot from oil and gas to careers in the city's growing digital technology industry — but it's reached the end of its pilot project funding. 

Edge Up helps displaced workers shift to jobs in Calgary's digital technology industry

Oil rig floorhands working at a Cenovus Energy project south of Fort McMurray, Alta. (Reuters)

A Calgary-based skills training program that transitions oil workers to technology jobs could be forced to shut down as its funding dries up.  

Edge Up, run through Calgary Economic Development (CED), helps displaced energy sector employees pivot from oil and gas to careers in the city's growing digital technology industry. 

It operates exclusively with a $1.5-million grant from the federal government's new Future Skills Centre. That money only covered a pilot project to bring two cohorts of students through the retraining program.

It's free for successful applicants and taught in partnership with colleges and universities around Calgary. 

The funding created spaces for 100 students. One group started the six-month program in February, the other will begin any day now. 

The program saw 10 times as many applicants as they had room to accept. Mary Moran, CED president, says it shows just how vital this program is for Alberta. 

"It's a good thing that it's targeted at the energy workers because we have a disproportionate or inordinate number of unemployed, highly skilled, highly educated workers in our province," Moran said. 

Calgary Economic Development CEO Mary Moran says she wants to offer the Edge Up program to hundreds more displaced oil sector workers. (CBC)

But the funding has been used up and the program is full. Without more money, Edge Up can't run any additional cohorts.

Calgary Economic Development has written to the federal government to ask for more money but says it hasn't heard back yet. 

"This is a great way for the federal government to help Alberta," Moran said. 

Economic woes abound for the province — and the industry

Several economic blows have led to a sharp spike in unemployment in the province. More than 243,000 jobs were lost in April, as Alberta's jobless rate hit 13.4 per cent.

COVID-19 is partially to blame, but an oil price war sparked by Saudi Arabia and Russia has also plunged Alberta's oil and gas sector into tumult.

Several prominent oil and gas companies have cut their capital spending and scaled back plans for 2020. Thousands of jobs in the oilsands are at risk as layoffs and delayed hiring increase.

Shona Clarke was caught up in last year's downsizing of Alberta's oil and gas industry after spending 20 years in the sector as a geologist. She heard about Edge Up through a focus group and decided to make the switch. 

It's a transition she thinks there will be a lot of demand for in the coming months. 

"I don't know what the future looks like in oil and gas, and it's certainly not going to be where it was five or 10 years ago," she said.

"There's a lot of people in the industry who I think are looking for other things because the same number of people just won't be needed." 

There's a lot of people in the industry who I think are looking for other things because the same number of people just won't be needed.- Shona Clarke, former oil and gas sector geologist

She's halfway through the program. Edge Up's second group is just beginning classes and Calgary Economic Development is pushing Ottawa for funding to run more. 

"I do believe that there's going to be increased demand in Alberta. There already is more demand than we can actually fulfil," Moran said.

She'd like to put a thousand workers through the program in the next five years. 

Tech jobs in the province are projected to hit 77,500 between now and 2023 — a digital transformation worth $18.4 billion.

No decision made on extending funding

The Future Skills Centre says it is unable to determine if funding for Edge Up will be extended beyond the pilot program. 

However, the centre staff say they're happy with the feedback from participants so far and understand the desire to keep the project going. 

"We are pleased the program has attracted a number of highly educated professionals and is an example of how new models of work can come out of partnership and investment and move the needle toward building sustainability and overall resilience to economic shifts," they said in a statement. 

The ministry of finance added that the government has also announced several measures during the pandemic to retain and create up to 10,000 jobs in the country's energy sector. 

The skills centre says it would be working with Calgary Economic Development to determine what happens to Edge Up in the future. While Moran didn't provide the precise dollar figure Edge Up would require to continue, she did say it's in the millions. 

Moran understands there's work to do. 

"We have to prove that it works," she said. "Then I think we will be going back to the federal government to ask for greater support."


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