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From the Oilfield to the Farm (and Beyond)

Olds College Gives Laid Off Oil Workers the Chance to Reskill and Enter the Agriculture Industry

When you think of Alberta, what comes to mind?

For many, energy and agriculture rank high—even our city slogans, such as Calgary’s “Be Part of the Energy” and Edmonton’s unofficial motto of “Canada’s Richest Mixed Farming District” show off our affinity for oil and gas, cows, and grain. But what happens when these industries that drive our economy are facing opposite labour issues?

An industry already subject to shifts based on markets, oil and gas in Alberta has suffered extreme job losses over the past year. In 2020, due to a combination of low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 1,660 workers in the extraction industry—working hands-on with technology and machinery—were laid off.(1)

At the same time, the agriculture industry in Canada is facing a shortage of workers in all areas of the industry—currently the labour gap is 63,000 people and could increase to 123,000 in ten short years.(2)

While this may all seem like bad news, there is a silver lining: reskilling, or learning new skills, to take a worker from oil and gas to agriculture isn’t a difficult prospect. It’s made even easier by programs offered at Olds College, especially in their new Werklund School of Agriculture Technology.

“Many of the skills and competencies oil and gas workers have are transferable into the agriculture industry,” says Debbie Thompson, vice-president of academic and student experience at Olds College.

While experience and expertise differ, there is a great overlap between the skills required for oilfield workers—such as calibrating and troubleshooting hardware—and those required for agriculture careers, including precision technology support.

“We have had increased interest in the energy to ag conversation with a focus on our newly launched Agriculture Technology Integration Post-Diploma, designed to provide students with opportunities to recognize the connectedness and interactions between hardware and software in order to maximize uptime in the field,” Thompson says.

In addition to the hands-on aspect, Olds College programs range in length from one-year certificates to four-year applied degrees—perfect for those suddenly out of a job and looking to get back to work as soon as possible.

One challenge facing widespread reskilling is the underestimation of the expanse of the agriculture industry—which could make people think there isn’t space for them.

“Traditionally, many of us think of agriculture as ‘the farm,’ but we don’t extend beyond that when thinking about jobs available in the industry,” Thompson says. “Some of the careers we often don’t associate with agriculture include environmental engineers, food scientists, real estate analysts, and more.”

In the past, reskilling for oil and gas workers focused on other energy sectors like wind or hydroelectric. These are still great options to explore, but these sectors are slow to grow.(3) Agriculture, on the other hand, is experiencing a boom with the rapid creation and adoption of new technologies.

“As technology advances, so does the need for upskilling or reskilling—and the introduction of new programming to teach the skills needed to successfully interact with the technology,” Thompson explains. For those who already have a technology background, it becomes an easy choice to reskill instead of starting over again.

Overall, reskilling from oil and gas to agriculture is a tactic full of wins: long-term job security, closing the labour gap, and according to Thompson, giving the agriculture industry new outlooks.

“[Oil and gas workers] can lend a new perspective and approach to solving complex challenges within agriculture,” she says. “They bring their skills, knowledge, and experience to the industry.”

By: Ellen Cottee

For more information on careers in agriculture explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.


2 Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council—National Agricultural Report, 2020.


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