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Tao Yi, a former instrumentation control engineer, seen here on Feb. 21, 2020, was one of 50 people accepted to the first year of Bow Valley College’s Tech Skills to Employment initiative in 2019.

Candice Ward/The Globe and Mail

After Tao Yi was laid off from his job in Calgary’s energy sector in December, 2016, the instrumentation control engineer spent more than two years looking for work. With no sign of an end to the oil industry’s slump, Mr. Yi decided to change his approach.

“I can still learn new stuff, so why not transfer to another career?” the 45-year-old said. When a friend told him about a new tech-training program at Bow Valley College, Mr. Yi went online to learn more. Thinking it was a good fit, he applied.

“It’s hard to go back to the oil and gas industry, so I decided to find a new path,” said Mr. Yi, one of 50 people accepted to the first year of Bow Valley College’s Tech Skills to Employment initiative in 2019. The free program for unemployed and underemployed Albertans offers four months of classroom training in data science and a 10-week work placement.

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He finished the course last summer and is now working for the Tech Skills initiative as a casual education assistant, while he continues to look for a full-time data analyst job. He remains positive about his prospects, given he has applied to about 60 IT jobs in under six months. “At least you can send your résumé out. For engineering, you had almost no chance to send it out,” Mr. Yi said.

Many of Mr. Yi’s fellow classmates are benefiting from the program, said David Harvey, dean of Bow Valley College’s School of Continuing Learning. Evaluations completed 90 days after its end show about 65 per cent of all learners are employed, with about 50 per cent of all learners are working in tech-related fields.

“We think that’s a pretty good number, but we’re striving to get that number higher,” he said. Earlier this month, the Alberta Ministry of Labour and Immigration gave the program a two-year extension. With $1.4-million of funding from the provincial and federal governments, spots will open for 100 more learners to transition to tech.

While numerous training initiatives are under way in Calgary to match people who lost oil and gas jobs with openings in technology, challenges remain for both workers and companies. Leaders from postsecondary institutions, the city’s economic development agency and industry are working together to address gaps, with diversifying the economy top of mind for all.

Calgary’s tech sector is not nascent, but it’s now attracting more attention amid a downturn that began when oil prices crashed in October, 2014, leading the energy sector to lose tens of thousands of jobs. “What makes this experience different [from previous downturns] is that there was not a rebound, basically of any kind, in oil and gas following the drop in oil prices,” said Trevor Tombe, associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary. That prolonged and persistent drop in energy sector activity has led to big pockets of people still out of work, Prof. Tombe said. Calgary had an unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent in January.

Meanwhile, uncertainty remains over how Alberta’s United Conservative government views the tech sector. Last fall, Premier Jason Kenney’s first budget saw the cancellation of business tax credit programs many in technology saw as beneficial.

The tech sector is the city’s path forward, said Mary Moran, president and CEO at Calgary Economic Development. “We know that this is the only way that we’re going to create companies here, fill office space and provide jobs for the future, because the energy industry just isn’t going to be the mega job creator it once was,” she said.

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Her organization’s latest initiative is the EDGE UP: Energy to Digital Growth Education and Upskilling Project, funded by the Future Skills Centre, a national organization helping prepare people for employment success. Ms. Moran said close to 400 people applied for 75 spots in the pilot program, which starts this month.

The program is for mid-career oil and gas workers, such as engineers and geoscientists. They receive training in one of three areas: information technology project manager, data analytics or full-stack/software development. In addition to technical training at local postsecondary institutions and work-placement assistance, Ms. Moran said students also get comprehensive “cultural training.”

“We want to make sure that there’s assimilation into the big cultural change between an energy company and potentially a tech company,” Ms. Moran said. People accustomed to their own office, Fridays off, a gym membership and a parking spot will face differences at tech companies, she said, including in compensation, hours and office environment.

Making that cultural change is only possible if you’re able to land a job, though, and while career strategist Jackie Rafter is seeing a lot of short-term support for professionals transitioning to tech, she’s not seeing a lot of people actually getting hired. “The majority of tech jobs that are available are for true techies. So these are people with computer science degrees and extensive technical training, not a six-week or six-month boot camp,” said Ms. Rafter, who, five years ago, founded Higher Landing, which offers job transition services to laid off oil and gas workers.

Cristian Tibrea, a client of Higher Landing, has experienced that struggle. Mr. Tibrea was an electronics technician with a decade of experience when he moved to Calgary from Romania in 2001. He went on to become an engineer, working in the oil and gas sector until a layoff in 2015.

In 2019, Mr. Tibrea took a new four-month program to transition to IT, aiming to become a network specialist. While Mr. Tibrea felt the technical training he received was good, he was disappointed the program didn’t include work experience or industry-recognized certification. He later completed a Cisco CCNA certification, but said with no recent IT work experience on his résumé, finding a job has remained challenging. He’s now considering leaving Calgary, possibly returning to Romania. “It’s the only chance to do something, because here, now, there’s nothing,” he said.

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Ms. Rafter said oil and gas workers can also face barriers because some employers may have a certain impression of them, including assumptions that the workers won’t stay in a new industry, are entitled, want too much money or aren’t prepared to start at the bottom.

HR manager Anette Ceraficki points to another reason why the move to tech may not be so easy: not everyone wants it. “The big dream when we first started talking about these retraining programs three or four years ago was that we would take all those unemployed petroleum engineers and transform them magically into software developers,” said Ms. Ceraficki, who has worked in human resources in Calgary’s tech sector since the mid 1990s, currently with Getty Images. “But the reality has been not all petroleum engineers want to be software developers.”

And not everyone needs to be a developer, Amin Lalani said. At Avanti Software, which he acquired in 2016, the co-CEO has hired people with oil and gas experience for client-facing roles, as opposed to highly technical ones. He believes some skills are easily transferable between the fields, without the need for extensive retraining. “It’s not all about reskilling and upskilling to become a developer,” he said.

Ms. Ceraficki added that “tech-adjacent” jobs in Calgary are being filled, such as in digital marketing or client support. But, “when it comes to software developers, data scientists, search engineers, cloud engineers, those kinds of roles, we have a shortage, and that is one of our biggest limiting factors to tech really exploding,” she said.

Staffing challenges are not new to Calgary’s tech industry, which has long had to compete financially with what oil and gas companies could offer employees. The playing field has changed and while all transitions may not be seamless, they can happen. Monika Wasylkiewicz recently made the switch, leaving an engineering job in oil and gas in 2018 to start a one-year master’s degree in software engineering at the University of Calgary.

Ms. Wasylkiewicz is now an application development engineer at a Calgary software company that automates oil and gas control room operations, called Crux OCM. “I love it,” she said. “It’s an ideal fit for my skill set and my knowledge, because I can now apply all those learnings from the software degree, as well as everything I learned in oil and gas, into creating something that can help the industry.”

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