I was privileged to be invited by Suncor Energy to be their guest at the Oil Sands Learning and Education Network, a two-day event in Calgary attended by over 100 individuals from government, industry, workforce development and various advocacy and interest groups with a stake in solving the skills crisis that threatens the economic engine of Alberta (and to a large extent of Canada). It was a very fast-paced session, and unlike many where the participants are pretty passive, this one was active: every individual was assigned to one of 4 working groups focused on a particular theme: my group was looking at increasing the number of skilled tradespeople for the oil sands.
There were a lot of ideas, some rehashing of the same stuff we’ve been hearing for ages, and some really cool, crazy, innovative ideas put forth. At the end of the session, we had to present what we’d come up with, and I was glad to help Olav Boersma from Shell and Dirk Volschenk from Suncor to put together the presentation slides, and ultimately I was asked to deliver to the plenary session, which is a heck of an honour.
I’ve been involved in apprenticeship and workforce development for a long time, and I’m getting tired of hearing about the problems, without any movement on solutions. During our sessions, Larry Staples of the Construction Owners Association of Alberta detailed the economic cost – around $300 billion in construction projects over the next 20-odd years in the oil sands alone, and countless billions in economic activity for the province and the country unless we developed the skills base to exploit the opportunity. That’s one industry, in one region. The overall economic impact to Canada is trillions and trillions of dollars. The future prosperity of this country hangs on our ability to solve the skills issue. And we’re still only talking about the problem.
I was reminded of a scene from that great 1962 movie “The Longest Day”. It’s June 6, 1944, and the US 29th Infantry Division is stalled on Omaha Beach in Normandy. They can’t get past the roadblocks, the obstacles, the opposition. Things are dire. And Brigadier General Norman Cota, played by Robert Mitchum, rallies the troops and gets them moving. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t actually Cota who made the speech, it was another officer, George A. Taylor of the US 1st Division, but Hollywood has never been known to let facts get in the way of telling a good story…)
We are at a similar point as a country. There are enormous obstacles: provincial rivalries, company resistance to investing in people, comfort with the way things are. We’re mired in talking about it, and the clock is ticking. We need action. We need leadership.
It’s time to get off the damned beach!