Engineering students face tough market in wake of oil downturn
U of Calgary says only about 30% of its 659 engineering students have found internships as companies cut back on recruitment.
CALGARY — Shady Hashem travelled part way around the world to study as a mine engineer in Canada, at times paying triple the local tuition and working at a call centre to put himself through school, only to graduate in one of the worst job markets in recent memory.
“There’s no jobs,” says Hashem, 28. “I talk to a lot of engineers, and the expected time to get a job is between six months and a year.”
He came to Calgary to look for work after finishing classes at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in December, hoping to find something in Alberta’s oil sands with his co-op work experience at Syncrude last summer. But postings are slim, and he hasn’t heard anything back after applying for 50 or so jobs in recent weeks.
“I’m applying everywhere, but I haven’t heard back from anybody yet, not even an email that says: ‘Sorry, this position has been filled,”’ said Hashem. “That’s very frustrating.”
Hashem, originally from Egypt but now a permanent resident of Canada, is one of the many recent engineering grads who are struggling to find jobs as the oil-and-gas industry continues to slash jobs in the aftermath of the global oil price plunge.
Those still in school looking for work experience also face a daunting market as summer approaches.
Colleen Bangs, manager of career services at the University of Calgary, says only about a third of the 659 engineering students at the school have found placements for their year-long internships as companies cut back on campus recruitment.
“Something I’ve noticed, particularly in this last semester, is that there’s a bit of an impending feeling of doom,” said Bangs.
That’s in stark contrast to the situation just a couple years ago, when the industry was booming.
“It was just a very different climate. Employers were racing to make offers,” said Bangs. “Whereas now it’s a bit more sombre to be totally honest. It’s a lot slower, much like we’re seeing in the general marketplace.”
Several companies are cutting back on student hirings. Suncor says it’s reduced hiring compared with recent years without giving specifics, while Cenovus Energy says it isn’t hiring any students at all for now, paid or unpaid.
Cenovus spokesman Brett Harris said in an email that the company suspended the program given the challenging economic environment, which has resulted in more than 30% of the company’s overall workforce being cut since the end of 2014.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however.
At the University of Alberta, close to 70% of the 1,300 students looking for four-month co-op placements have found them, said assistant professor Tim Joseph at the university’s school of mining and petroleum engineering.
He said employers still have short-term hiring needs – and while the co-op students are paid a healthy salary ranging from around $3,000 to over $6,000 a month at times, companies aren’t on the hook for senior-level salaries, benefits or other long-term obligations.
“It’s not the same expense as a full hire. You can normally get two to three people for the price of one,” said Joseph.
Joseph said he’s hoping to get over 80% of students in co-ops this summer, compared with a peak of 96% in the boom years. Students who can’t find placements risk losing their spot in the co-op program, and graduating without crucial work experience.
But even those graduating with experience are struggling, said Joseph, as they look for those elusive long-term, full-time jobs. He recently asked for a show of hands in the graduating class of about 850 of those who had a job lined up, and said only about 20% raised their hands.
Hashem was fortunate enough to find co-op placements throughout his program so has some savings to live off, but he’s cut back on expenses where he can.
With few jobs to apply for, he’s spending most of his time these days trying to further improve his skills, taking an online course on project manager principles so he can apply for civil engineering jobs.
He says he has up days and down days as he tries to stay focused and optimistic.
“I’m doing my best,” he said. “I’m improving my qualifications, but I’m still waiting.”
© 2016 The Canadian Press