There was an interesting piece in the National Post last week about unemployed professionals in the Alberta oil and gas industry. In amidst the occasional whine about the oil industry being so unloved by the rest Canada, there is a serious article about what happens to people in specialized professions when the economic tide swings away from that profession. Some quotes:
Philip Mulder, spokesman for the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), said its geoscientists are faring badly in the current climate because they are predominantly employed in oil and gas…PetroLMI/ENFORM, which tracks labour market trends in the sector, said 145,000 people worked directly in oil and gas extraction, pipelines and services in the province on average in the first four months of 2016, down from 176,000 during 2014. Meanwhile, 17,300 were unemployed on average during the first four months of 2016, up from 6,500 during 2014. The rest left the industry by moving elsewhere or to other sectors, retiring, going back to school.
Lemiski, 33, studied for eight years at the University of Alberta to earn a degree in geology and a master’s in earth and atmospheric sciences. He started his career six years ago as an exploration geologist at Talisman Energy Inc., but was laid off when the company ran into financial difficulties and cut its exploration program. He found work at Nexen Inc., owned by China’s CNOOC Ltd., as a petrophysicist, but that didn’t last long and he was back on the street in March.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Times are obviously tough for professionals in this industry and it’s hard not to sympathize with people whose profession is vanishing under their feet. But let me simply point out that this situation could have been predicted by anyone a) with half a brain and b) who remembers what the early 1990s recession was like in Alberta. Cyclical industries are just that – cyclical. They rise and they fall. That’s fine until people forget that both are equally likely.
And of course, the top of a boom is precisely where people tend to forget that. One of many examples: the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2011, saying Canada would need 6,000 geophysicists to deal with retirements between now and 2020. Here’s a Petroleum Labour Market Information report saying that the country wasn’t training enough people, and predicting that there would be a shortfall of 1500-200 geologists and geophysicists in Alberta alone by 2022. And so of course there was a drumbeat across the west: why weren’t those out-of-touch universities doing more to graduate more geologists?
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened of course. Back in the late 1990s the Ontario government fell for the pitch of the IT industry that there simply had to be more computer science graduates in the province or woe, disaster, earthquakes, pestilence, etc. So the Harris government, which had hitherto done nothing but cut the bejesus out of Ontario universities, decided to spend millions to “double the pipeline” in computer sciences (i.e. double the intake of students in order to double the number of graduates). Ontario universities took the money and implemented the plan, which delivered a record number of graduates… who hit the job market in 2002, right in the middle of the worst tech bust in history. Cue thousands of underemployed Engineers, at least for a few years.
My point here is not that universities should ignore the labour market. That would be silly; most students attend university to get a better job, and ignoring the labour market is tantamount to malpractice. My point, rather, is that one has to be extremely careful about trying to time the market by shifting enrollment into specific programs. Any job that’s in high demand today has good chances of looking very different in five years – the time it takes to design a program and get a new boatload of students through it. All you end up with are a lot of disappointed and underemployed students.
Pay attention to long-term trends? Certainly. Short-term booms? As little as possible. Even in Alberta.