U of C sees ‘remarkable’ drop in undergrads focusing on oilpatch engineering and geology

With a prolonged downturn continuing to weigh on Canada’s oilpatch — and warnings of even more layoffs — enrolment data from one university suggests fewer young people may see their future in Alberta’s biggest industry.

Figures from the University of Calgary show the number of undergraduates focusing on petroleum geology or oil-and-gas engineering have dropped significantly since the downturn hit the sector roughly five years ago. 

“The prospects over the next 40 years just doesn’t look as strong as other areas of energy or other jobs, and so you’re seeing that enrolment drop,” said Raymond James analyst Jeremy McCrea, who published the numbers this week.

According to figures McCrea gathered from the U of C, the number of undergraduate students enrolled with a concentration in petroleum geology declined from 138 in the fall of 2015 to 13 in fall of 2019. That’s a drop of nearly 91 per cent.

The ranks of undergrads with a concentration in oil and gas engineering are also down, he noted, dropping from 171 to 39 over the same period, or a decline of 77 per cent.

Although perhaps difficult to imagine now, enrolment figures this low may possibly lead to a shortage one day.– Jeremy McCrea

Figures for 2020 enrolment aren’t available until December. 

McCrea believes the downturn the sector has been navigating since the middle of the decade has impacted the number of students enrolling in oil-and-gas-related studies.

He suggested negative headlines about the future of the sector may be having an effect on students’ decisions as they weigh career options for the coming decades.

He called the declines “pretty remarkable,” adding it’s the kind of situation that could mean a scarcity of such skills down the road.

“Although perhaps difficult to imagine now, enrolment figures this low may possibly lead to a shortage one day,” McCrea wrote in a note to clients this week.

The oil and gas industry has been under increasing scrutiny amid concerns about climate change and a growing discussion about a future energy transition.

McCrea pointed out one area of potential “pickup” at U of C appears to be in energy engineering, with course descriptions focused on renewable aspects of energy. He noted 134 undergrads had that focus in 2019, compared with 46 in 2015, the year the Schulich School of Engineering launched the new major. 

Gloria Visser-Niven, director of communications for the U of C’s faculty of science, said it’s not uncommon to see shifts in student interest over a period of time from one major to another and to different concentrations within a major.

The faculty of science continues to see enrolment growth across the variety of disciplines offered, she said. 

“While the interest in the petroleum geology concentration has shifted, the field of geology attracts students to other areas of future employment,” she said in an email.

Such areas include hydrogeology, natural disasters, environmental geophysics and mining. 

There have been a lot of headlines about employment in the oil and gas sector recently.

Last month, Statistics Canada said the country recorded its largest ever drop in natural resources employment in the second quarter of 2020 with close to 43,000 workers losing their jobs. 

The losses have been driven by a substantial drop in demand for crude oil and refined petroleum products due to global travel restrictions and the growing prevalence of working and schooling at home, the agency said.

Some big players in the sector have announced plans to make significant reductions in their workforce, including energy producers BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Suncor

One organization that tracks labour trends in the oil and gas sector has also been monitoring the demand for petroleum engineers and geoscientists. 

Petroleum Labour Market Information (PetroLMI) projected in its 2019 outlook for the sector that demand for petroleum engineers and geoscientists would be down that year.

Data it collected this year also indicated that — in a scenario where there was not a great increase in capital spending in the oilpatch — demand would also decrease in 2020-21 before very slow growth through the next number of years.

“These occupations tend to be related to exploration activities more than production, and the decline in capital spending means less exploration,” PetroLMI vice-president Carol Howes said in an email to CBC News.

Howes said these tend to be highly skilled occupations tied to identifying and developing new oil and gas opportunities, well-planning activities and managing drilling and completion operations.

“Any loss of talent and fewer entrants into these occupations will erode the talent and skills needed to discover, design and build new projects when activity does pick up,” Howes said.

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