I think education is a great equalizer of opportunity. To me it is a fundamental requirement for us to move our economy ahead."
Dr. Eric P. Newell, OC, AOE, FCAE, PEng.
Eric Newell is a trailblazer and a visionary. He is responsible for revolutionary innovations in Alberta's trades workforce and oil sector, including a new energy strategy for Canada worth billions. He has initiated opportunities for economic prosperity to under-employed people across Alberta, especially women and Indigenous peoples.
Born in Kamloops in December 1944, Eric grew up in Victoria and completed his degree in chemical engineering at the University of British Columbia. He won an Athlone fellowship, which allowed him to earn a masters of science in management studies at the University of Birmingham. Afterward he worked for a firm consulting for the port of London, reviving the Thames, which had been declared ecologically dead in the 1950s.
His boss at the firm was a Knight of the Realm, Sir Frederick Warner, and internationally renowned authority on nuclear and chemical safety.
“He had two pieces of really sound advice: one, seek out responsibility, and two, always find the area where your boss has never worked,” says Eric.
Before leaving England, he hired on with Imperial Oil to put process control computers in all of their refineries across Canada.
The next seven years saw him living out of his car, traveling to computer manufacturing sites across Canada. He even crossed the border to New Jersey where he met his wife Kathy.
In 1986, Eric had worked his way to division manager for Imperial Oil. That year, crude oil prices dropped below $10, and Eric ended up redesigning Esso Petroleum (a division of Imperial Oil) from the ground up, and in doing so, designed away his job.
Imperial Oil loaned him to Syncrude, and that’s how Eric found himself on the runway in Fort McMurray in 1986, standing on the path to becoming one of the most influential people in Canada’s energy sector.
At that time, the development of the oil sands followed a mining philosophy: establish a site, mine out the area, and then shut down the site and start over somewhere else. Under Eric’s leadership, Syncrude envisioned a new model using satellite mining operations that moved according to where resources were richest, while feeding the extracted bitumen back to one central upgrader.
He gathered more than 30 organizations and created the National Oil Sands Task Force, which in 1995 presented a new energy vision for Canada. It highlighted estimates for job creation and government revenue from taxes and royalties. By investing in research and breaking from traditional oil extraction methods, Syncrude with the rest of the oil sands industry far exceeded those estimates.
Winning the support of government and succeeding in the development of needed technologies still left Syncrude with significant challenges, including Alberta’s aging labour force. This was compounded by low enrollment in apprenticeship training, a consequence of low oil prices and fewer jobs, as well as the falling reputation of the skilled trades as a respectable and viable career.
"Parents want their kids to be lawyers and engineers and doctors. Trades were viewed as a career of last resort,” Eric explains.
Eric embarked on a campaign to find supporters for apprenticeship training and jobs. Together with Syncrude and funding from the Alberta government, Eric launched a pilot project to build awareness of skilled trades careers with high school students. The pilot was a success, and led Eric to co-found CAREERS: The Next Generation in 1997.
Amongst other initiatives, CAREERS provides workshops in more than 500 schools, runs trades camps with Alberta’s Northern and Southern Institutes of Technology, and collaborates with the provincial government to hold career fairs. They also run sessions with parents, spreading the message that great and meaningful careers are just as possible in the skilled trades as through a university education.
Work experience is a critical component of the CAREERS business model. Pre COVID-19, about 1500 youth were placed annually with about 800 employers in the workforce as new apprentices (Registered Apprenticeship Program students) and interns.
“Stop telling your students to go to university to become a lawyer or engineer,” Eric says. “At CAREERS, we’ll take whatever they are passionate about and help them figure out a good career path.”
CAREERS has found great success among First Nations communities and has programs in every First Nation school across Alberta. High school completion rates go up for students in their program, and apprentices regularly find jobs that are close to home and help meet their community’s needs.
Although no longer directly at the helm of CAREERS: The Next Generation, Eric sees it growing exponentially, quadrupling its placement of apprentices and doubling the number of schools where it runs programs.
Eric is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, and has honorary doctorates from the University of Lethbridge, University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Athabasca University. The Energy Council of Canada recognized him as the 2003 Energy Person of the Year and he was inducted into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame in 2010.
He held various senior roles at Imperial Oil, led Syncrude Canada Ltd as CEO, served as president of the Alberta Chamber of Resources, is chancellor emeritus of the University of Alberta, and has been the director and chair of numerous other organizations.
Eric and Kathy live in Edmonton. They have three children and are proud grandparents to nine.