Podcast: Diversity and inclusion in Canada’s oil and natural gas industry

Aimee Sheppard of Cenovus Energy and Kathy Hawkins of InclusionNL discuss the state of diversity and inclusion in Canada’s offshore oil and natural gas industry.

Aimee Sheppard is the senior industrial benefits and diversity advisor with Cenovus Energy in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Kathy Hawkins is executive director for InclusionNL, a group that collaborates to help employers become more disability confident.

Sheppard recently won an award from Energy NL for her work on inclusion and diversity with Cenovus. Together, she and Hawkins discuss with Energy Examined industry-led initiatives like STEM for Girls and the West White Rose Project Diversity Research Fund, as well as trends and increasing opportunities for traditionally unrepresented groups in oil and natural gas.

Podcast transcript

Holly: Hello and welcome to Energy Examined, the podcast that brings you insiders and experts to discuss issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas industry. I’m your host, Holly Quan. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at diversity and inclusion within Canada’s offshore petroleum industry. I’m pleased to introduce two guests: Aimee Sheppard is with Cenovus Energy; Kathy Hawkins is with InclusionNL. Both are speaking from St. John’s. Hello, Aimee.

Aimee: Hi, Holly. How are you?

Holly: I’m well, thanks. Hello, Kathy.

Kathy: Hi, Holly. Thanks so much for this invitation.

Holly: Thanks to Aimee and Kathy for being with us today. I’ll start with you, Aimee. Could you describe your company’s offshore operations and your current role with Cenovus?

Aimee: I work with Cenovus Energy in St. John’s, Newfoundland — very lucky that I am from here, live here and work here. Cenovus operates the White Rose Field, and our West White Rose Project is currently under construction. Across those two projects, we employ more than 300 people directly and more than double that through our contractors.

My current role is the senior industrial benefits and diversity advisor. In the Atlantic region, we have commitments around diversity and local benefits, including investing and training and education, R&D and ensuring local residents and businesses benefit from the offshore. My role includes working with our internal colleagues and our contractors, external to the company and our community stakeholders to ensure that we are delivering on those commitments.

Holly: And Kathy, can you please tell us about InclusionNL? What is this organization and what is your role?

Kathy: InclusionNL is the corporate services of our Disability Resource Centre known as Empower. We are the provincial disability resource centre and a part of the Independent Living (IL) Canada movement. We’re the only accredited IL Canada organization in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. We provide services to a whole host of people.

We have a team of 18 and we have a membership of almost 400 people with disabilities. Our corporate program, InclusionNL, has been operational now for about eight years and we provide employer support. We help employers become more disability-confident and to help create barrier-free work environments so that people can hire folks with disabilities on their teams. I’m the executive director. Prior to that, I was the manager of InclusionNL and I started the program.

Holly: Let’s talk generally about diversity and inclusion. Kathy, it seems like you have a particular focus on people with disabilities, but what do these terms, diversity and inclusion, mean to you? Why are they important in the offshore industry? And what are the benefits of growing diversity and inclusion? Kathy, I’ll start with you.

Kathy: I think there are lots of benefits for the corporate sector to be more diverse when they’re hiring their talent. We’ve been providing these supports and services to employers now for almost eight years. One of the biggest things that we’ve seen is that up until InclusionNL started, lots of times we heard that businesses had bad attitudes about hiring folks with disabilities.

Once we started InclusionNL, we found out that wasn’t the case at all, that employers were keen about hiring people with disabilities. They just weren’t comfortable with the process or even what to do. You know, is their job application form accessible? How do they even make sure that they are providing a barrier-free recruitment process and those sorts of things?

So, very early when we initially started, we started going to the offshore oil and gas trade shows and introducing the idea of hiring more people with disabilities into that industry. We’ve been connected to Cenovus and other oil and gas industries in our province for a very long time now. And we continually see the benefits of employers and folks in the oil and gas industry being more diverse. From my perspective, diversity includes disability, and lots of times accessibility isn’t necessarily a part of plans. They just think that diversity and inclusion is all-encompassing, but there’s a few more components that always brings a much better experience to the employer.

Holly: Aimee, what’s your perspective? Diversity and inclusion, what do they mean to your company? Why are they important? What are the benefits of being a diverse and inclusive employer?

Aimee: I’ve heard it said certainly many times before: diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act. That’s something I lodge in the back of my brain when we think about diversity and inclusion. Often diversity is more visible than inclusion. I almost see diversity as the starting point, especially when we look at recruitment of individuals to an organization.

But inclusion is that desired state, and it can sometimes be more difficult to see and to measure but really, an inclusive workplace is where we want to be and quite frankly that’s very important to the industry broadly and to Cenovus specifically. Here at Cenovus, it’s written right into our purpose and values. And, internally, of course, we value safety above all else.

We talk about protecting people and the environment. We talk about psychological safety and the need to have an environment where people feel free to speak up. To me, that ties back to inclusion and again building an environment where people can and want to do their best work. We are a business that produces and supplies products that serve people and communities. And, our workforce, our strategies, how we operate our business really needs to reflect the needs of our community and represent them. So, I see all kinds of strong business reasons why we should have a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Holly: So then, what challenges exist when it comes to facilitating greater diversity and inclusion? And you could speak about facilitating the hiring of folks with disabilities, but there are other challenges as well, perhaps older employees. So, what are the challenges you’re facing?

Aimee: I think for many, this industry is still looked upon as a place where you’re in the field, where there are certain physical requirements. A lot of the challenges are around those biases that we bring.

On the flip side, there are tremendous opportunities. This industry is changing. We talk about qualities like resiliency, adaptability. From my experience working with Kathy and her organization and others in the community, people from underrepresented groups are often very strong in these areas. I mean, they see barriers and know how to move past them. They are experts in that space. We can certainly learn a lot from people in those traditionally underrepresented groups.

Holly: Kathy, what about you? Can you speak to some of the challenges that you’re encountering? And you did mention for folks with disabilities, sometimes it’s just a company or an employer may not even be aware of their own biases and barriers. So, what challenges are you seeing? What opportunities exist?

Kathy: I would echo what Aimee said around biases. There’s still a lot of unconscious bias out there in terms of making sure that your full talent pool is inclusive of people with disabilities. But also too, I would want to point out that the bias goes for the full cycle of an individual. I know that we’re talking specifically in the oil and gas industry, but I would almost say that one of our barriers is making sure that young people with disabilities are counselled in the school system around occupations and careers that they can seek out in this particular industry, where typically that’s where the bias would start, because guidance counsellors and career counsellors would generally encourage young people with, say, for example, mobility disabilities to go into a different type of career and not necessarily explore environments that they could potentially go offshore or potentially do other types of things that wouldn’t be known, I guess, as a traditional job.

So, lots of times, folks like Cenovus Energy and others in the industry have a difficult time trying to find skilled talent amongst the disability community right from the get-go. Sometimes it’s a big barrier. On the other side of that, Holly, some of the biggest opportunities are with the various companies who are open to and really interested in making sure that the talent that they hire is reflective of the community where they are. Cenovus Energy, of course, is a good example of that.

Holly: Building on that comment then, Aimee, do you have specific programs or initiatives you’ve developed at Cenovus to foster diversity and inclusion? I’m thinking of everything from recruitment to internal programs, mentoring. What specific programs or initiatives do you have in place?

Aimee: We certainly have a lot available internally. As I look back on my career, I’m proud to work for a company that has a strong focus on diversity, inclusion and more recently, it has been highlighted as one of Cenovus’s ESG — environment, social and governance — goals.

There are a couple of initiatives that are running here in the Atlantic region that I’m proud of and there are places where our community partners are doing some really cool things for us. One of them is a research fund that we’ve established with Memorial University. There’s an arm of the university that is administering this fund for us. It’s called the West White Rose Project Diversity Research Fund. Cenovus provides some funding and the university administers a program, issues a call for proposals and such.

What they’re looking for, is to identify research projects that really help us better understand some of the challenges in the local workforce or how we can build that talent pool. One of the cool things that the fund aims to do is partner community groups with academics at Memorial. It’s the best of both worlds. You have the community partner that is bringing their expertise to the table and then the academic researcher who is bringing their research expertise to the table. The results are practical results that serve the broader community. There’s a call for proposals a couple of times a year, and I believe in the last round, Kathy’s group InclusionNL did receive one of those awards.

Kathy: Yes.

Aimee: I’d also like to speak about some work we do with WRDC, Women and Resource Development Corporation. Similar to Inclusion- and EmpowerNL, WRDC has been one of our long-time community partners and we’ve been involved with them in a variety of ways. One area we’ve been a supporter of for 15 years or so now, is on their STEM for Girls program. That program moved to virtual delivery within the last couple of years, but it’s a program that targets junior high girls across the province and introduces them to a range of careers in STEM.

One of the cool parts of that program is we’ve been able to provide role models over the years. So, women who work for us in a variety of technical fields who volunteer to participate in that program, and that’s one of those places you have to ‘see it to be it’. The feedback from both the girls and the role models has always been tremendously positive. People are exposed to a set of careers they never knew were possible and have a better understanding of what the work life looks like. So, we’re really pleased to be a part of both of those programs.

Holly: That’s really cool. Kathy, what about from your perspective from InclusionNL? Do you have specific programs or initiatives? How do you encourage underrepresented groups — women and girls, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, newcomers — how do you encourage them to look broadly at employment opportunities?

Kathy: I wanted to just speak to the funding that Aimee spoke about, where we were recipients of some research. That piece of research is ongoing at the moment. So, we are partnering with Memorial University to identify needs with employers in oil and gas and in renewable energies.

We’re hoping that the information that we receive can help inform us around program and service delivery, where we will be able to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to get their career skills up to a point where they would be competitive within these industries. So, based on this research, we are hoping to offer a program in the spring of 2023 where we will be bringing together upwards to 50 people with disabilities and helping them to focus on their own job skillset, but also help them get different industry certificates, safety training and those sorts of things to make them more employable within these industries. That’s one way that we help educate people around seeking out employment within the oil and gas industry.

We also offer individual career counselling services, and we do a fair amount of work with the school system so that we can get access to young people with disabilities and just let them know, if you’re using mobility devices and stuff, there’s lots more career opportunities out there other than office-type environments. So, it’s a daily educating process where we constantly have to connect people with employers to make sure that they are aware of barriers that they’re experiencing within their processes and best practices as well as with people with disabilities, too, because the majority of people with disabilities don’t believe they can get gainfully employed in the oil and gas industry.

Holly: That’s true. It seems like there are many programs and a recognition that this is an area of opportunity for employers and it’s an exciting time. Aimee, you recently received an award for your work, and you were nominated by InclusionNL. I’m going to ask each of you to tell me why this recognition is important. Kathy, I’ll start with you. Why did you nominate Aimee? What did you see in in her work that you thought is worthy of recognition?

Kathy: I had no hesitations, Holly, when the nomination came out. We were very privileged to be able to provide the nomination because we just recently became an associate member with Energy NL. So, we could do it as a non-profit, which was proud for us to be able to be within that space and to do it.

As soon as I saw the Diversity and Inclusion Award, I immediately thought of Aimee because she is such a solid collaborator and is a leader in the oil and gas industry when it comes to diversity and inclusion, hands down. There’s no question about it. Just in terms of her integrity, the way that she leads by collaborating and doesn’t presume to be an expert whatsoever. I was even more excited when she got it. I’ll turn it over to Aimee so that she can take it from that point. But I tell you, there was a week or so that I was on the edge of my seat waiting for those announcements to come out because I had no idea.

Holly: Aimee from your side, what’s the significance of this recognition? It sounds like you were excited to not only get the nomination, but to receive the award. What’s the significance?

Aimee: I’m really glad there’s no camera here because I’m pretty sure my face is flushed right now. Thank you very much, Kathy. I wasn’t aware that I had been nominated until I received an email from Energy NL confirming me as the recipient. It took me a couple of reads of the email to piece together what had happened here. But it was a wonderful surprise. What’s really cool is that it was the first diversity and inclusion award that Energy NL presented. So, I joke with my colleagues that I will always have that. I will always be able to say I was the first recipient. That’s my claim to fame. So, thank you, Kathy, for making that happen.

Energy NL did a wonderful job with the awards night and promoting each of their award recipients. There were three or four other awards presented on that evening. For me, what was neat was that the diversity and inclusion award was a part of that Industry Achievement Awards gala, and it shows that work in the D&I space is as valued as work in any other aspect of the industry. That was really important. It shows that it’s a core part of who this industry is, what we value, and not just a nice thing to do off the side of someone’s desk. I was really pleased that the award itself got the recognition it deserves.

The added bonus was that I got to be the one to accept the award. Back to Kathy’s comment around awareness activities, the awards night and the promotion that Energy NL undertook also raises that awareness of the work that companies are doing, that individuals are doing, but also the work that our community partners are doing. Kathy, you mentioned something around daily conversations. One of the things I’ve seen in the diversity and inclusion space, certainly in this organization, is that no initiative is too small. The small things are worthwhile doing and I’ll reference an event we had in 2021.

Kathy, this was our diversity forum. This is an annual event we have in the Atlantic region that brings in representatives from Cenovus, representatives from our key contractors and some of our community stakeholder groups to talk about various diversity issues. One of the speakers that we had at that forum was one of Kathy’s team members, Mandy Penny. Mandy had about 10 minutes to talk to us about how one of the upsides of the pandemic, if I could say that, is how it forced organizations to adopt work from home very quickly. Mandy identifies as a person with a disability.

She spoke about how working from home, what a significant change that made in her daily life. She walked us through what some of her transportation challenges are and challenges with getting to an organization, let’s say, for an interview or for a first-time meeting. For many of my colleagues, it was such an eye-opening few minutes. People still talk to me about that today.

Holly: Building on that, it seems to me there’s a great deal of work going on and opportunity for people who are traditionally underrepresented in the industry. Aimee, do you think people in Newfoundland and Labrador see the oil and gas industry as increasingly inclusive? Increasingly, there are opportunities? Are you seeing fundamental change as far as opportunities for underrepresented people?

Aimee: Good question. That’s a tough question. Internally I am seeing that change, but I’m not sure that we have translated that or told the story or made the connections externally. One of the things I’m thinking of there is digitalization and increased use of technology and the opportunities that come with that. When will there be a time where more roles happen onshore that support the offshore? I feel that opportunities are coming, but I can’t necessarily point to the metrics now to show that that change has happened. I am optimistic it will happen.

Holly: I was participating in a report that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers released recently about diversity and inclusion. We found a similar situation where it’s hard to point to specific metrics around, say, Indigenous employees or women employees. It’s changing. It seems that we’re at the cusp of a change. The opportunities are there. It’s an evolution, perhaps not a revolution. Kathy, would you agree with that? Do you think people in Newfoundland and Labrador see the industry as inclusive, as a good place to work?

Kathy: The awareness is changing. There have been many years when they haven’t seen it as an inclusive environment. I would say that the awareness is changing and it’s changing with individuals and folks with disabilities and community. But for me, I see it more with the employers in the industry and the stakeholders. Since our work with Cenovus, we’ve had different oil and gas companies come to us and say, ‘what’s that like?’

To go back to Aimee’s reference to Mandy. After that presentation that she did, I am sure that she was approached at five different times after to do that very similar presentation because it made such an impact. This is a young woman who’s 30 years of age who has three degrees, including one as a Master’s in business and probably one of the reasons why we started InclusionNL because she was a university graduate and still couldn’t find employment. We were lucky to snap her up, by the way, and I’m going to hang on to her. It is a real coup for us. I just want to put that out there.

The awareness really is growing. Every day I get a new call from somebody within this space and in sector who just calls and says, ‘Kathy, can you talk to us some more about what we heard at the Cenovus Energy diversity forum or what happens with Energy NL?’ I personally believe the awareness is raised significantly, although like you’ve both said, we don’t necessarily have a metric to measure that by quite yet.

Aimee: I’ll go back again to the power of conversation and talking about diversity and inclusion issues, matters, etc. One of the challenges we have internally with metrics is the reliance on self-identification. This year will be the first for Cenovus as our new company, in 2022, we will be rolling out a self-identification survey across the organization and there are communications to support that and to talk to people about why it’s important to self-identify. It is a voluntary thing, but certainly it does help us determine where we need to focus recruitment efforts or what we need to look at internally. It helps point the D&I team in in the right direction.

Every time we have a conversation about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it’s a positive step forward in making people more comfortable or helping them understand the value in self-identifying. That’s something that happens inside the organization. The more we talk about it internally, the more people see it externally as well. So, there’s a spectrum of initiatives and activities and I’ll go back to saying: I don’t think anything is too small to pursue.

Holly: You both sound very energetic and optimistic about the changes that are taking place. It’s an exciting time to be doing this kind of work. In closing, I’d like to ask each of you if there’s anything else that you’d like to add or anything that I haven’t talked about that you’d like to bring up. Aimee, I’ll start with you.

Aimee: I think change is slower than most of us would like, but it’s happening and we see that in our reporting. Part of what I do is I manage our quarterly and annual benefits and diversity reporting requirements. These are reports we submit to our regulator. They’re also posted on our website if anyone is interested. Each month we receive employment data from our main contractors and Cenovus as well. Annually, those same groups submit additional information related to their diversity program. Sometimes it’s hard to see any change from quarter to quarter, but when we look back over a longer period, the change is there.

One thing I did want to point out — I discovered this earlier this year when doing our last annual report — in the year 2000, women’s employment on the White Rose Project was 14 per cent. In 2021, that number was 29 per cent, so a pretty significant increase there for us. That growth is almost exclusively in onshore jobs. We still struggle to find female candidates for offshore positions. It’s something we’re working on. In fact, on our West White Rose Project, we have set an initial target for having women represent five per cent of the offshore workforce in the first full year of operation. Currently on SeaRose, we do have some women working, but they are in the accommodation side of the business, the hoteling, the catering side. With West White Rose, the target that we’ve set is for five per cent of the offshore technical workforce to be women.

Across the other underrepresented groups, we’re seeing smaller increases and that’s really where community partnerships help us make inroads. One of the things I love about work in the inclusion space is just how much we are collectively learning and growing when it comes to this area. We are getting better at accepting and acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. Every day our perspectives on something are being challenged at home, at work, in the boardroom, at the dinner table. Like I said, we are all more comfortable with accepting that maybe we should listen more.

I would certainly encourage people, young people, members of underrepresented groups to take a closer look at the industry. Maybe that means sending someone a LinkedIn message or an email and asking them for a coffee or a quick chat to really understand what the work environment looks like. One last thing I’d like to add, and Kathy’s probably heard me say this before, I go back to another statement that has stuck with me. I came across it a couple of years ago: talent is distributed evenly, opportunity is not. That challenges me to think about who we are reaching out to, who’s at our table, who’s not at our table, and how we need to do things differently. If I keep that in the back of my brain, if not daily, then definitely weekly, it pops up and challenges me to think about, ‘how did I find this group or who did I reach out to or who didn’t I reach out to?’ I would encourage people to build their own diversity networks as well.

Holly: Thank you so much. Once again, I’d like to thank Aimee Sheppard and Kathy Hawkins for helping us understand aspects of diversity and inclusion in Canada’s Atlantic offshore petroleum industry and more broadly in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are echoes across the entire country. Thanks to both of you. Listeners, be sure to subscribe to Energy Examined for future podcasts. You’re welcome to share podcasts with your friends and family. We’ll meet you back here soon for more insights with energy industry insiders. Signing off now, Holly Quan.