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Lower oil prices means fewer engineering jobs

By in News

RACHEL WARD

CUP Labour Bureau Chief

HALIFAX (CUP) – The drop in oil prices is affecting more than the price at the pump. Engineering students report fewer job advertisements and reduced co-op programs as a result of company cutbacks. Students who are either months from graduating or looking for their next work placement find options slim.

Dalhousie University chemical engineering student Michelle Otutu said both existing jobs and future prospects are being eliminated quickly.

“The jobs that have already been confirmed for a lot of people are also disappearing,” she said.

The drop in oil prices is predicted to be national loss of $40 billion in profits, according to a Conference Board of Canada report published Feb. 9. Although prices are expected to rise to $60 a barrel from the current $45, said the report, that’s still a 40 per cent decline over a year in the price of crude oil.

Companies are cutting spending, halting construction and laying off workers, leaving fewer jobs for technical and scientific professionals, said Julie Ades, a senior economist with the conference board’s national forecasting team.

Otutu, who graduates in May, said she’s lucky to have a job lined up. Many of her classmates have a different situation. One, who was offered a job, had it rescinded when the price of oil dropped, she said. Others are applying to grad school and some, currently looking for work experience co-op placements, have gone home for the semester or enrolled in electives to fill the time.

“People are exploring those options as well and trying to open up the opportunities to those other fields, but it’s kind of tough,” said Otutu, “when all along over four, five years, you’ve been told strive for oil, that’s where you should be.”

One such job for Syncrude Canada Limited, a large oil company, was cancelled after a Dalhousie University student applied.

“Due to a re-evaluation of business need,” said an email sent to the engineering student, “we have had to adjust our workforce requirements and cancel the search to fill this position.”

Syncrude is not alone in cutting back on hiring. Suncor, another major oil and gas company, announced Jan. 13 it would cut this year $1 billion from capital spending, which would otherwise be used, for example, for new construction or technology. Suncor also announced plans to lay off 1,000 people.

Suncor posted on its co-op page the day after: “As a result of yesterday’s corporate announcement on Suncor’s accelerated spending reductions we will be postponing our live chat on student opportunities.”

As of Feb. 9, only one job — first announced in September — was posted for engineers on Suncor’s site. For Syncrude, no jobs at all were posted on its online job bank.

“You’re kind of moulded to think that oil is the number one sector that you should be striving for and hoping to get a job in, when the reality, we can work in a wide range of sectors from pharmaceuticals to brewery to forestry, paper mills, things like that,” said Otutu. “Historically [oil] seems to be the most glamorous one.”

Oil and gas companies are expected to cut back on construction by 24 per cent in 2015, said Ades. Jobs for the technical and scientific professionals, the sector which includes engineers, are “not expected to fare very well,” she said, but more are expected in 2016 as business investment picks up.

This is all on top of a bad year for employment growth in general, according to Ades. 2014 was the worst year on record in two decades, she said, except for the recession year of 2009.

“2015 is expected to see about 1.1 per cent growth in employment so it’s an improvement,” she said, “but in 2016 employment growth is expected to be also a bit better.”

Students need to know this context, said Otutu, and it’s not being explained in their classes. Many feel “stressed or embarrassed” because they’re expected to graduate with several job offers following the recently high demand of the degree.

“There seems to be a lot of shying away from discussing about the fact that people don’t have jobs right now,” said Otutu. “No one is getting offers. Interviews are really a lot harder to come by. I feel like you still need to have that discussion more openly.”

Engineers Canada, the sector’s national organization of regulators, is set in the next few months to release a comprehension labour market survey of engineering students including an enrolment report and student exit survey, said spokesperson Alana Lavoie. She was not available for an interview by deadline.

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