Innovation, Collaboration, Inclusive Workforces Driving Forces Behind Canada’s Largest Value-added Energy Supercluster

The collaborative cluster environment created by Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association ‘helps support partnerships, drive innovation and can help unlock new trade relationships, while advancing green technologies.

Collaboration and innovation are key to succeeding in an increasingly competitive global market. This ethos was at the core of a decision taken by four Alberta municipalities in 1998 to join together and form Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association; a non-profit association with the goal of attracting worldwide investment to this resource-rich region and to create an advanced chemistry manufacturing supercluster. These municipalities believed it was better to collaborate rather than compete with each other, and that an investment in one part of the region would benefit the Heartland as a whole.

Twenty years later, these visionary mayors have been proven right. Through research and investment in clean technologies, efforts to create an inclusive workforce and an overall ambition for collaboration, the 582 square-kilometer area known as Alberta’s Industrial Heartland has grown to be a world-class value-add energy cluster at the heart of Canada’s economy. Thanks to government and industry working together, our region has been able to attract $40 billion in capital investments, support 25,000 direct and indirect jobs, and generate $1.5 billion in annual spending in addition to the substantial taxes paid by the over 40 companies located here. The products processed and produced support advanced chemistry manufacturing at home and across the world, helping to produce essentials like detergents, fertilizers and food packaging, life-saving medical equipment and even our Canadian dollar bills.

Budget 2018 clearly articulated the importance of research and an inclusive labour market to innovating and unlocking Canada’s economic potential. Companies in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland are tapping this potential by making significant strides forward in advanced research, adopting green technologies, and creating a more inclusive workforce.

World-class research at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (located in Edmonton) (NAIT) allows Canadian energy businesses to compete globally. NAIT partners with industry on applied research to find relevant solutions to real-world challenges in key sectors including energy, environment, healthcare, and construction. Companies operating in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland are investing in Canada’s research expertise and potential; Pembina Pipeline Corporation offers Power and Chemical Engineering scholarships at NAIT and the University of Alberta, and DOW Canada has contributed over $1 million to NAIT’s power engineering program. DOW’s Fort Saskatchewan facility boasts a high number of NAIT grads – a full 64 per cent of their employees.

Global companies have caught on to Canada’s research and resource potential, investing in new technologies that provide opportunities for STEM graduates. Proposed polypropylene facilities to be located in the Heartland (by Inter Pipeline and the Canada Kuwait Petrochemical Corporation) will ensure continuous innovation and unique opportunities for graduates across Canada.

Our collaborative cluster environment helps support partnerships, drive innovation and can help unlock new trade relationships, while advancing green technologies. The Heartland is a leader in carbon capture for refineries; boasting two refineries with carbon capture technology (Shell Quest and North West Redwater Partnership’s Sturgeon Refinery). Shell Quest alone has captured and stored two million tonnes of CO2 in the last two years. Meanwhile, the Sturgeon Refinery will be the first in the world to have carbon capture technology built in from the ground up, which will help divert the CO2 equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road.

The collaborative spirit at the core of our mandate is best reflected in our workforce. Alberta has the highest participation rate of women in construction and maintenance trades and occupations in Canada. This is in large part due to the work of Women Building Futures (WBF), a non-profit Alberta organization with a focus on workforce training, skill development, coaching, and employment support for women in the trades. Companies in the Heartland have partnered with WBF to not only be an important catalyst for positive changes at work sites; but also enabling economic freedom, personal confidence and transformational growth for women, families and communities. North West Redwater Partnership has welcomed 43 WBF Grads on their site since September 2015 and Pembina helped support three Indigenous women through a program that resulted in apprenticeships.

As noted in Budget 2018, developing a more inclusive workforce starts with an early introduction for women and girls into careers in STEM fields. Companies in the Heartland couldn’t agree more, and are working to expose young people to these careers early-on. Partnerships like those between Access Pipeline, North West Redwater Partnership, and Pembina Pipeline Corporation have provided this exposure for young people through Alberta’s first public school Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) Learning Lab. With support from private sector companies, the Lab provides a space for students to create and learn about STEAM-related initiatives through hands-on projects. Furthermore, Shell Canada is making a significant investment that will advance high school programming for students pursuing careers in the trades, providing unprecedented access for students to leading-edge technology and mentorship from highly-skilled tradespeople.

Fostering a diverse workforce and setting the conditions for collaborative partnerships will allow Canada’s energy sector to unlock its full potential and compete globally. The federal government has stepped up on both fronts, and the work done in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is proof positive of how these goals support a more inclusive and innovative economy that benefits every corner of our country.

*This article was originally posted in The Hill Times.  CLICK HERE TO read the online version of this op-ed.