Annicia Phu sports a cauliflower ear, a souvenir from her years as a competitive wrestler in high school in Calgary. Jammed fingers and bruises were also commonplace — not only in wrestling but rugby, another full-contact sport she embraced as a student. Besides being “a great way to relieve stress,” the competitions also forced Phu to overcome her teenage shyness. “I don’t think I would be the person that I am if I didn’t have those experiences,” says Phu. 

Today, Phu, a University of Calgary oil and gas chemical engineering undergraduate who finishes her degree this April, is anything but shy, with a curriculum vitae chock full of leadership and volunteer positions with student and chemical engineering organizations. Last October, Phu was the student undergraduate  committee chair of the 65th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference, held at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre. Phu had only six months to organize the student portion of the conference for 213 undergraduates and a tour of the ENMAX Energy Corp., Cavalier Energy Centre. “A lot of the students from out East don’t get to see things like this; it really opened their eyes to how the oil and gas industry works.” 

Unlike many of her fellow students, Phu has also tallied three summers of work experience in the field with different energy companies. They include Apache Canada Ltd. and Laricina Energy Ltd. of Calgary. Her favourite summer internship was spent in Maidstone, Sask. working with Canadian National Resources Ltd. as a relief operator, helping optimize the production capacity of 36 heavy oil wells. In Saskatchewan, with its endless, sun-baked landscapes dotted with herds of cows, she grew to respect the expertise of the rig crews. “In some ways, they have more knowledge than the engineers and office people as they are out there every day analyzing how the wells are working.” 

Phu wants to take on a full-time field job with an oil and gas company upon graduation. “I don’t want to just sit behind a desk reading numbers.” Unfortunately for Phu and her fellow chemical engineering graduates, positions in the energy sector are at a premium due to the free fall in oil prices since late 2014, when West Texas Intermediate crude dropped to US$60 per barrel from about US$100 a barrel. (At our magazine’s printing, it was hovering around US$30 a barrel.) In the year leading up to the October chemical engineering conference, Alberta lost 65,000 jobs, according to Statistics Canada. This means that no university graduates are being hired, says Phu. “I don’t know 20 people who have jobs and there are about 700 of us graduating this year.” Many undergrads have applied to enter a master’s degree program. Phu says this isn’t for her. “I want to be able to get out there and gain experience.”

The downturn in the oil prices is unfortunate for another reason. With the energy sector identifying zero greenhouse gas emissions as its ultimate goal, Phu and her fellow chemical engineers have been looking forward to putting into practice the green innovations they learned at university. Now, with fewer jobs on the horizon, the industry may be less likely to experiment with untested innovations — an unfortunate situation not only for the students but for climate change mitigation efforts in general.
Despite the dismal job outlook, Phu refuses to be discouraged. If necessary, she will look for a position internationally. If there is anything that wrestling and rugby has taught her, it is this: the tougher the situation, the more you dig in to try to change what might appear to be an inevitable negative outcome. And until the current bust in Alberta’s economic cycle reverts back to boom, that might be the best that young chemical engineering graduates can do.