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Black and green gold holds promise for MBA students

Oil drilling near Grande Prairie, Alta.

Rob Ganzeveld/Rob Ganzeveld

When Trevor Nickel made the decision to enroll at the University of Alberta for a Master of Business Administration in 2004, he wasn't exactly sure which direction his studies should take.

As with any MBA program, options abounded from operational management to marketing-all offering the biologist and former federal government employee different opportunities for career advancement and financial success.

But as he puts it, the decision was made "in about 20 minutes" once Mr. Nickel began researching business trends in his native Alberta. His conclusion: opportunity could be found not only in the black gold that has fuelled the province's economic growth for years, but also in alternative energies such as solar and wind.

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So, like dozens of MBA students each year, the Edmonton resident opted to focus his studies on energy and natural resources, in his case in the Natural Resources Energy and Environment (NREE) specialization program at the U of A's Alberta School of Business.

"The decision to enroll in the NREE was a question of opportunity at the educational level, which was significantly different than what MBAs receive when they go through the general stream," Mr. Nickel, who had no previous experience in the sector, recalls.

The University of Alberta is just one of several Canadian business schools that offer such a program, along with Alberta's Athabasca University and University of Calgary, and Dalhousie University in Halifax.

As Joseph Doucet, director of the NREE program explains, energy and natural resources firms, from major oil producers to makers of alternative energy technologies, have a need for graduates who not only possess traditional MBA skills such as systems modelling and deep analytical thinking, but can speak with confidence about the minutiae of their industry.

"I came here because there was a lot of demand for this kind of program due to the current interest in energy, natural resources and the environment," Dr. Doucet says of his decision to join the faculty at the Alberta School of Business in 2000, two years after the NREE program was founded.

"These areas are important not just for businesses, but for governments and non-governmental organizations. They're even more significant in Alberta because of the place those industries occupy in the economy in terms of job investment and other economic interests here. It's not surprising this specialization was created."

And as oil prices continue to climb due to increasing demand and supply pressures-not to mention political uncertainties in the Middle East-and governments around the world invest heavily in alternative energies, the demand for highly-specialized MBAs such as the 15 or so that Dr. Doucet graduates each year, is almost certain to climb.

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Indeed, Mr. Nickel was hired by Edmonton-based Highmark Renewables Research LP, a firm that produces and licenses waste-processing technologies, about a month before graduating from the program in 2006.

For other students such as Karen Wichuk, a business lead with oil and gas giant Shell Canada in Calgary, the decision to pursue a post-graduate degree in Athabasca University's MBA with energy concentration program, was initially born of a desire to expand her knowledge of business issues and systems to tie in with an engineering background. With graduation just around the corner, Ms. Wichuk believes she's walking away not only with typical skills that MBAs are so often called upon to provide, but a deep-seated awareness of issues relating to the energy industry.

"I think the difference between a normal MBA and this one is that a lot of your peers are energy industry professionals," she explains. "Even though you might be studying human resources, for example, you end up spending a lot of time sharing best practices on energy-related questions and looking at HR from an energy perspective."

As Anshuman Khare, professor of operations management and sustainable development at Athabasca University's Centre for Innovative Management, explains, programs such as the MBA with energy concentration try to provide students not only with an insight into energy markets, but also government regulation and environmental sustainability-a common thread across these specialized post-grad degrees.

"Energy touches on everything, it's related to emissions, mobility, water, everything," Dr. Khare explains. "There's also much greater appreciation for what's going on in the world among students, how things are changing and how we may not have oil as our main fossil fuel in the near future."

Other programs, such as Dalhousie University's 16-month Master of Resource and Environmental Management (MREM)-a joint program offered by the university's School for Resources and Environmental Studies and the Faculty of Management, offer a greater combination of both environmental management and resource-focused classes.

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The MREM is unique in that, unlike most MBA programs, it requires no previous business experience for admission and offers a corporate residency component similar to a co-op placement. Its first cohort of students, 120 in total, is due to graduate this year

The purpose of mixing business and environmental science-focused students in one course, says Scott Comber, director of Dalhousie University's MBA program, is to offer a wider breadth of learning and prepare them to fill positions in high-demand niche areas, such as corporate social responsibility.

"The MBAs and environmental science students learn from and with each other," Mr. Comber says. "We have students come into our program who want to run something like Shell Oil, we have people wanting to work for not-for-profits, we have people who want to be entrepreneurs-we put them all together because we realize that policy, business and the environment are all connected."

But for pragmatic students, such as 32-year-old David Bartelme, who is due to graduate from the Alberta School of Business' NREE program in May, energy and natural resources-focused MBA programs offer opportunity in a sector where demand, at least in some form, will always remain high.

"There was a lull in hiring in the energy industry due to low prices and investment in the late 1990s and now the baby boomer generation is retiring," says Mr. Bartelme, a chemical engineer who worked at Shell Canada in Edmonton for nearly a decade before pursuing his MBA. "There's going to be a huge need in five or 10 years when all of those guys retire, for people to come into the industry and take over those senior roles."

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