Canadian Manufacturing

N.L. oil workers transitioning to careers in the tech sector

Overall, Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil projects shed more than 6,000 employees in the province between 2015 and 2020, according to operator reports.

December 6, 2021  The Canadian Press

Adam Lichter says he spent his last year in Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil industry teaching himself to code while working on a supply vessel in an oilfield about 350 kilometres off the coast of St. John’s.

It was 2015, and he spent his days operating autonomous underwater vehicles in the Terra Nova oilfield and his nights learning programming languages, driven by the ever-present threat of a layoff in the sector’s boom-to-bust trajectory, he said.

Lichter is one of a growing number of former oil workers who’ve found new careers in the province’s tech sector, working as a software developer at smart thermostat company Mysa in St. John’s.

“Working offshore had some pretty great benefits,” Lichter, 37, said in a recent interview. “But working for the tech industry, I get to come home every night and see my family. The hours are more flexible.”

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Mysa is one of several tech companies held up as examples of what’s possible in the province, often alongside local juggernaut Verafin, which was acquired by Nasdaq in February.

In a video posted by Memorial University to Twitter on Nov. 19, Verafin co-founder Jamie King tells an alumni event that his financial fraud-detecting company employs about 800 people, 600 of whom came from the university. The five-year-old Mysa now employs about 100 people, and last week there were 16 job openings on the company’s website.

By comparison, the Terra Nova offshore oil project directly employed 422 people as of June 30, according to a report from its majority owner, Suncor Energy. That’s about 400 fewer people than it employed in2015, when Lichter was there.

Overall, Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil projects shed more than 6,000 employees in the province between 2015 and 2020, according to operator reports. On June 30, about 3,100 people were directly employed across the province’s four offshore installations, reports show.

Jan Mertlik, a co-founder of the St. John’s company Get Coding,created to help fill the tech skills gap, said about 20 per cent of his students are oil and gas workers. The majority of them are still working in the industry and preparing to make a change. “What we hear from them is they feel a lot of uncertainty about the industry and the unsustainability of the lifestyle,'” he said in a recent interview.

Robert Forsythe, chief executive officer of dairy tech company Milk Moovement, bristles at the suggestion that switching from oil to tech is a young person’s game. He’s hoping to hire between 10 and 15 new people in Newfoundland and Labrador next year, and he’s set a goal for at least two of those people to be “retraining, or re-educating or upskilling from other industries,” he said.