Colin Bruce-Alleyne had been working at oilfield services provider Schlumberger for 12 years, and he was expecting a promotion—a new position as an accounts manager in Jakarta. “Then everything fell apart,” he says. The oil industry crashed, and he took a buyout last year. He spent six months job searching without success. “I realized then that this wasn’t looking promising,” he says. So he moved back to Canada from his post in Bangkok and enrolled in the University of Alberta’s MBA program focused on natural resources.
It might seem odd to spend money on a degree for work in an industry that has retrenched, but MBA programs with energy or resources themes are seeing a boost in applicants. The current cohort at the University of Alberta’s MBA in natural resources, energy and environment is 10% larger than the previous one, while the school’s Fort McMurray MBA for oilsands workers is up nearly 35%. The Global Energy Executive MBA program at the Haskayne School of Business has 25% more students this year.
Energy professionals are using the downturn to upgrade their skills and score better gigs when the market picks up. Some, like Bruce-Alleyne, are using severance packages to fund their MBAs. “Our applicants realize the global energy industry is undergoing profound change and that they need more skills and knowledge to prosper,” says Claire Dixon, Haskayne’s director of MBA programs. Still, it’s not entirely without risk. Schools are working harder to find internships and job opportunities for students, who are betting the industry will rebound. “I can go back to school, address some of the gaps in my resumé and establish a network,” Bruce-Alleyne says. “When the cycle swings up, I will be well-positioned.”
For William Fox, a new EMBA candidate at Haskayne, “energy” isn’t just oil and gas. Fox worked as a process engineer with Total in Calgary until he was let go last year. Friends and family have called him foolish for furthering his education in an industry that’s so weak right now. “I can’t throw the past 16 years away,” Fox counters. “I can come out with a new utility belt and be prepared to take on different roles in the energy sector,” he says. When he was laid off, one of the two calls he received after submitting 200 job applications was from a renewables company that manufactures biofuels from compostables, an area he’s keen to get into.
Not every school is so lucky in terms of enrollment. The Sauder School of Business in British Columbia cancelled its EMBA in strategic mining management, set to debut last year, after candidates withdrew applications. “They were banking on their employers paying for their degrees and then saw that funding revoked,” says Séan Corbishley, the schools’s director of EMBA and custom programming at the school, adding that mining firms are looking to save money.
While everyone is optimistic that the sector will rebound (Sauder hopes to offer its mining EMBA in 2018), schools are putting more resources toward finding co-op and internship placements for students in the interim. The University of Alberta hired two additional career advisers to help students polish resumés and practise job interviews, while encouraging students to look for jobs outside Alberta—and even the petroleum sector. Some skills, such as supply chain management, can be transferred to retail and manufacturing.
Bruce-Alleyne, for one, is eager to see what doors will open up. “At this point, the vision is to build on my prior education and do something related,” he says. “But I’m going into this with an open mind.”