With the price of oil continuing to plunge, Albertans are being forced to redefine their long-term priorities in the face of an increasingly uncertain economic future.
The price of oil fell to below $40 per barrel in 2015, and by January Alberta’s heavy crude oil was fetching under $20 per barrel on world markets. This staggering plunge has ushered in a deep freeze in the province’s previously prosperous job market.
Martin Andreasen, 25, decided to return to part-time studies at Mount Royal University while weathering the current downturn in his public-sector position.
“After completing my English degree at the University of Calgary, I knew that I needed to gain some industry-specific skills that weren’t taught in my undergraduate courses,” he said.
While Andreasen was one of the lucky ones when it came to finding full-time employment soon after graduation, he remains acutely aware of the potential for the economic shockwaves currently shaking the energy sector to begin impacting publicly funded positions like his.
“I needed to take something more focused, like a continuing education certificate, to refine my credentials and make myself more competitive in a pool of qualified, experienced applicants who have been cut from the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Searching through offerings at the city’s major post-secondary institutions, as well as online and distance education possibilities, Andreasen settled on the public relations certificate program at Mount Royal University.
“It was important for me to find something that let me maintain full-time employment,” he said.
Alberta’s current government, the Rachel Notley-led New Democratic Party (NDP), has ensured that the province’s post-secondary funding continues to flow despite falling commodity prices.
In October, when Alberta crude oil was selling at under $44 per barrel, Notley delivered the province’s first-ever NDP budget, which included a $280-million boost to post-secondary funding compared to the previous year. Tuition was also frozen for two years, helping to make higher education more accessible.
While the latest Alberta budget has led the province deeper into a deficit, Finance Minister Joe Ceci has consistently reinforced the provincial government’s commitment to maintaining high levels of public service, including post-secondary educational funding for Albertans.
Emily Kotow, 28, is a current University of Calgary student, studying full time to complete her master’s degree in classics and religious studies.
Returning to school after a two-year stint in corporate Calgary, Kotow found that her time working under the pressure of commodity prices gave her a new appreciation for her time at university, both as a student and an employee.
Before swapping the boardroom for the classroom, Kotow worked as a communications coordinator at an energy company now in the midst of major layoffs.
“I was working during a very different time, economically speaking,” Kotow said. “There was a constant drive to bill more, to make more money, and we were rewarded for it. For a long time, it was exciting to be a part of.”
Eventually, though, Kotow grew disillusioned with the financial focus of her work and began to consider other options.
It was important for me to find something that let me maintain full-time employment.- Martin Andreasen
“I was considering a switch just as the economy was starting to slow down,” Kotow said. “I wanted to do something more fulfilling but also something more secure. Layoffs were just beginning as I was in my final few months on the job.”
After beginning her studies last September, Kotow secured an assistant teaching position in her faculty and has now decided to pursue a career in post-secondary teaching.
“People will always need to learn, I’m sure,” she said. “The desire for knowledge isn’t driven by the price of oil, and the ability to obtain it isn’t either.”