CALGARY -- As thousands of Alberta students get set to graduate from post-secondary institutions in just a few months, many are worried about the prospect of obtaining work in the province where they grew up. 

Mohammad Ali is among a vast group of long-time Calgarians with big dreams to work in Alberta’s energy sector. 

The graduate of Sir Winston Churchill High school enrolled at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business hoping his supply chain management degree would be a strong stepping-stone to working close to home, but that’s not the case. 

Instead, Ali will head south for more opportunity in the United States once he graduates this spring. 

“It’s almost like a recession for jobs and it’s really tough to find an entry-level position so students who are graduating with $40,000 to $50,000 in debt are going to take the first offer they can get,” Ali said.

“It seems that since there’s such a heavy focus on the energy that if we can’t find jobs here, we’re going to utilize our degrees elsewhere wherever the market’s demanding students.” 

With vaccinations ramping up south of the border, Ali expects the U.S. economy to open up much sooner than here in Canada. Although he notes Calgary was already seen as an exit point even before the pandemic.

“That’s why they call it the brain drain," he said.

With extended family in California, Ali is lucky enough to have secured permanent residency status in the U.S., along with a work visa through a previous internship, but not everyone has that chance. 

Students seeking jobs still show optimism

Aside from the challenges students face, it’s no secret Alberta’s energy sector is also continuing to struggle amid thousands of layoffs and the recent cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It’s why this week’s 10th annual Alberta Student Energy Conference (AESC) hopes to set students up for success by cultivating new relationships with industry leaders and sharing knowledge with students.

Some 600 students took part in the virtual event this year from post-secondary institutions across the Canada, including 200 international student attendees from around the world.

U of C chemical engineering student and conference chair Nima Macci says Alberta’s energy industry is experiencing growing pains, but the industry is starting to adapt and look towards new technologies.

“Oil and gas producers are beginning to acclimate to ESG regulations, they’re showing a more concerted effort to integrate business practices that show social responsibility, stewardship and environmental concern and within that there is so much potential for growth,” Macci said. 

“There is a growing need for data analytics that are essentially helping the oil and gas industry address some of its inefficiencies and a great deal that’s going on with renewable energy development within the province that’s not being discussed nearly as enough.”

Macci is still looking for a job herself, but hopes events like the AESC conference will help students network directly with industry leaders and show them what they have to offer.

“It’s all about marketing the value we bring through our talents and interests and helping to lead the energy industry into a brighter and more prosperous future,” she said. 

Students struggling to pay tuition

A new report from the U of C Student’s Union shows that nearly one-third of all students looking for jobs weren’t able to find summer work last year.

The survey found that 31 per cent of respondents wanted full or part-time work, but couldn’t obtain it. Meanwhile, 12 per cent reported they secured internships that were cancelled due to the pandemic and nearly 40 per cent reported being worried about their ability to pay tuition fees for the following year. 

Student’s Union president Frank Finley says students are dealing with huge tuition increases as a result of provincial cuts to post-secondary.

“It’s why getting that work experience to save for their education and get employment now becomes harder than ever and removing the student temporary employment program isn’t helping either,” said Finlay.

“A government can’t expect to cut $100 million from post-secondary education, increase tuition, decrease what students can expect and cause a spiral of the economy and think things are going to turn out fine.”

The U of C Student’s Union says tuition has risen 20 per cent on average at the end of a three-year period of cuts for most students.

Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides recognizes the concern of tuition, but notes the fees in Alberta are comparable to B.C. and well below the national average.

In a statement, his office says financial supports are in place to help thousands of students fund their education.

“We have also taken steps to increase financial aid by creating new scholarships and have announced a new $15M investment over three years to create 1,400 new paid research-based internships for Alberta students,” the statement read.

“Alberta's government is also finalizing a ten-year strategic plan for our post-secondary system that will set students up for success by expanding work-integrated learning and by ensuring they graduate with the skills, knowledge and competencies they need for a successful future.”