Institutional: Closing the training gap

SAIT Polytechnic's new Trades and Technology Complex is expected to help meet Alberta's growing skilled labour needs

As Alberta's construction industry continues to heat up, the province is expecting the current shortage of skilled workers to only get worse. Baby boomers will continue to retire in the coming decade while more oilsands projects are expected to come on stream, driving labour demand even higher.

This shortage has left a huge gap between the number of students Alberta's academic institutions pump out every year and the number of new employees the oil and gas industry is looking to hire-a fact not lost on SAIT Polytechnic, which could not accommodate all of the students applying to the institution. So, in 2006, the seed was planted to construct new buildings.

That seed has grown into the Trades and Technology Complex. When the project began, the school was turning away qualified applicants due to a lack of space. Irene Lewis, SAIT's president and chief executive officer, says, "That, combined with the fact that baby boomers are passing the torch to a new generation of engineers, earth scientists, technologists, trades workers and support personnel, meant SAIT must be ready to respond."

The new Trades and Technology Complex will add over 740,000 square feet to the school's northwest Calgary campus to accommodate an additional 8,100 full- and part-time students each year in career-oriented training.

"A trained and competent workforce is in high demand across all industries-and in Alberta, we naturally have a great focus on the oil and gas sector, which helps fuel the economy of this province," Lewis says. "It is our responsibility at SAIT to meet the education and training requirements of this evolving workforce."

Considering the complex her "dream piece," Lewis says, "I feel great pride-pride in our employees, in the contractors and architects we worked with, and pride in our students, who will get so much out of this new complex."

The Trades and Technology Complex is comprised of three buildings: the Aldred Centre, the Johnson-Cobbe Energy Centre and the Cenovus Energy Centre. Construction began in September 2009 and will finish this fall, with a total cost of $400 million ($300 million was contributed from the Alberta government and $100 million was donated by individuals and companies).


Calgary's Gibbs Gage Architects designed the complex. Vincent Dods, a partner at the firm, says, "We employ a large number of SAIT graduates at Gibbs Gage and thus understand the value of a good education, the value that the SAIT grads provide and their contribution to the quality of the projects they work on."

The architectural firm's inspiration for the project's design was taken from the campus itself. "The original campus structures were predominantly masonry-based," Dods says. "Our goal was to reinterpret the original design, using current materials and technology to seamlessly unify both past and present design themes."

The design is also meant to accommodate both present and future uses for the builldings. The loading capacities of the floors and freight elevators are designed to service the complex needs of the various instructional programs, while also anticipating unexpected future requirements as additional programs are developed. The freight elevators can even accommodate forklift traffic.

The buildings will also have educational value in their own right thanks to one eye-catching element. "One set of passenger elevators in each wing is provided with glass-front panels and transoms to showcase the mechanical functioning of the elevator hoistways," Dods says. "This design feature further identifies the buildings themselves as teaching tools."

PCL Construction Management Inc. is the primary contractor for the complex and Derek Pearce, senior project manager, believes the Trades and Technology Complex encompasses many innovative and green features. "Several sustainable elements are incorporated into the design and construction of the Trades and Technology Complex, which will result in a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Silver certification," he says.

According to Pearce, SAIT is targeting a minimum savings of 27 per cent overall energy use through innovative designs in the mechanical and electrical systems and high-efficiency building envelope. He also notes that "the project is on target to achieve over 90 per cent of all waste being diverted from landfill and sent to recycling facilities."

The expected lifecycle of the building systems and envelope is between 40 and 50 years with regular maintenance, and the building structure should last over 100 years under proper care and protection.

An integrated green building education program will allow occupants and visitors to learn about and see the various sustainable aspects of the complex through digital display systems and guided tours of the buildings.


Once completed, each of the three buildings in the complex will house various schools and centres:

  • Named after John and Cheryl Aldred for their $10-million donation to the complex, the Aldred Centre is 440,000 square feet and houses the school of construction and the school of manufacturing and automation. The new Enerplus Centre for Innovation will also call the Aldred Centre home and will feature custom-designed spaces to accommodate specialized equipment for technology development, testing and validation.

  • The MacPhail School of Energy will be housed in the 273,000-square-foot Johnson-Cobbe Energy Centre, which is named after David and Barbara Johnson and Murray and Connie Cobbe for their respective $5-million donations. Included in this building is the Ramsay Centre for Petroleum Engineering Technology, named after Doug and Susan Ramsay for their $3-million donation, and the Mathison Drilling and Geosciences lab suite, named after Ron Mathison for his $1-million donation. The lab will feature an interactive 3-D drilling simulator to provide students virtual rig and drilling operations training.

  • Finally, Cenovus Energy Inc. earned naming rights for the Cenovus Energy Centre with its $3-million donation. The 40,000-square-foot centre will be home to power engineering students in the MacPhail School of Energy, allowing SAIT to more than triple the number of power engineering graduates by 2016.

That last point is likely of special interest to the province's expanding oilsands industry. A May report from the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada estimates employment in the oilsands will jump 29 per cent between 2011 and 2015-an increase of approximately 5,850 jobs.

Many of those positions will be filled by power engineers, who operate and maintain oilsands plants and equipment, such as the high-pressure boilers needed in steam generation. An increasing amount of oilsands production is coming from companies like Cenovus, which use in situ methods like steam assisted gravity drainage to produce the bitumen, creating a higher demand for power engineers.

"I think the $300-million contribution from the government of Alberta to fund this project says it all," Lewis says. "That strong vote of confidence guarantees the Alberta advantage for future generations by building a stronger, more robust, more flexible post-secondary system for our province."

While Lewis recognizes the economy has cooled down somewhat in the last few years-certainly in comparison to the boom years before the 2008 global economic crash-activity is expected to heat up very quickly. "We know there will be an upswing across all sectors before too long, as that is the cycle," she says.

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