At the end of August, Minister Doug Schweitzer was appointed Minister of Jobs, Economy, and Innovation, an event which not only marked his change of role from Minister of Justice & Solicitor General but also marked the shift in focus for the UCP Government from equating economic development with trade and tourism to defining the Alberta economic recovery according to innovation and jobs. Over the weekend, at the UCP AGM, Minister Schweitzer gave his detailed update on how much he has achieved in just two months. He began the discussion session with his update on where Alberta is right now economically citing that over 230,000 Albertans have got their jobs back as Alberta moves on its way to recovery with encouraging signs on the innovation front. He pointed out that Alberta has already had the most successful year on record for venture capital in 2020 as it relates to our innovation and technology space, noting that over $200 million were raised for Calgary based companies. That broke a record from the previous year of $130 million in 2019. In his opinion, Alberta is experiencing the beginnings of a strong recovery.
“We have the right trajectory and we have the beginnings of what they call “Unicorns.” These are companies that are fast-growing, entrepreneurial, innovative companies that are worth over a billion dollars. Right now, we are working to keep up with their hiring practices in Alberta. You are going to see a bunch of announcements from us on the labour front/ talent front with some retraining as well to fill this demand.”
As an example of the type of training that fits with Oil and Gas talent, Schweitzer spoke about the talents of geologists who we often think of only in terms of oil and gas. He pointed out that in other industries, they would be considered as data scientists because they analyze data every day. He sees the ability to get geologists and many oil and gas workers a refreshed skill set in a short period of time.
Schweitzer paid homage to the oil and gas companies that form the foundation of the Alberta economy and will continue to dominate in future by describing them as companies we all know and love, amazing employers that have done great work building our traditional economy. He sees bright days ahead for the oil and gas industry, especially in terms of carbon capture and hydrogen development. He described Alberta as the best place in the world to develop hydrogen, citing our successes in unlocking carbon capture, SAGD, and oil sands through technological innovation. He credited Alberta’s intellectual horsepower for these successes in oil and gas and sees Alberta as the best-placed jurisdiction in the world to develop hydrogen. He tied Alberta’s innovation advantage to the intellectual capital of Alberta universities who are developing AI and quantum computing which are highly prized, not only by the energy industry but also by other Alberta industries.
“The University of Alberta is the third-ranked university in the world when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. That’s why they’ve been able to attract Google’s DeepMind to our province here in Alberta. We have made strategic investments in our postsecondary institutions to attract some of the best minds in the world. These are trillion-dollar opportunities for Alberta, and we are at the forefront of those opportunities. On top of that, the University of Calgary’s Institute for Quantum Science and Technology is at the forefront of quantum computing. AI, machine learning, and quantum computing that is the foundation for an immense amount of growth.”
Schweitzer also talked about innovation work in the field of agriculture and mentioned the new announcement of $800 million going into irrigation districts to unlock over 200,000 acres. But the biggest news was that Alberta’s higher value crops have attracted SVG Ventures, a Silicon Valley accelerator that came to Alberta from California and partnered with Olds College for an innovative program. As Schweitzer described, the program is utilizing a massive drone that can go out to a farmer’s field and do a huge amount of work that normally would take many employees to perform. As the session progressed to a question and answer segment, the question came up of how Albertans could manage with AI eliminating jobs? Schweitzer’s response was optimistic and realistic at the same time.
“This technology is going to make every single business that we have more efficient which is going to allow us to compete on the world stage. The efficiencies include everything from making sure we have better oil flows and timing how much is going into the pipe when you’re producing, to how agriculture is done- to make sure you have the right crops, to getting your right timing for harvesting, to making sure we time our forestry initiatives, to how you bring the product into your mill – all of this has applications across oil and gas and every single industry. They’re calling this the 4th industrial revolution and you’re either in this game or you’re not. And I want to make sure Alberta is in this game.”
The 4th Industrial Revolution is an interesting concept. Author Klaus Schwab argued a technological revolution is underway “that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.” It describes how artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and the internet of things technologies are drastically altering how individuals, companies, and governments operate, ultimately leading to a societal transformation similar to previous industrial revolutions. As for fears of AI “replacing” human skills, although the 4th Industrial revolution was the theme of the 2019 WEF annual meeting in Davos, it was followed in 2020 by a WEF statement identifying skills that AI cannot replace such as the ability to undertake non-verbal communication, to show deep empathy, to undertake growth management, to realize new ideas in an organization and more.
Questions turned to the 2.7 Trillion-dollar global Aerospace and Defense industry and whether the Alberta government has development plans. In terms of Aerospace, Schweitzer mentioned he has just announced additional funding for research in satellites at the University of Calgary. The University of Calgary research team is currently working with the International Space Station on GPS mapping and radiation issues with space. There are also promising technologies that are up and coming – like lower orbit satellites for communications and the Internet. He noted there is a potential for companies to locate in Alberta because of the strength of our post-secondary research. On the aviation side, he sees air cargo as performing exceptionally well and that’s led to additional manufacturing options, logistics plays and since Alberta is blessed with a great geographical location, it is very well positioned to play a further role when it comes to manufacturing logistics and aviation. Building on this strength, he sees the announcement last week of the reopening of the Calgary airport to allow for shorter-term quarantines for international travel as a boost for business. Instead of quarantine for 14 days, starting the first week in November, travelers can quarantine for 24 to 48 hours, so flights are going to start going into Mexico, California, and other business destinations. Alberta is currently the only place in Canada that has this guideline thanks to the leadership of the Alberta Government working in collaboration with WestJet and the Calgary airport. In closing the session, Schweitzer hinted at more initiatives in the near future saying,
“You will want to stay tuned in the weeks to come. We are working closely with the Minister of Advanced Education as well as the Minister of Labor for a whole bunch of different packages from dealing with labor and talent, to opportunities for job grants, to opportunities for shorter internships as well as retraining people -with an ability to get people a refreshed skill set in a very short period of time. A lot of Albertans are betting on their own future.”
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.