From Co-op To Career: A Project Engineer Shares His Journey With Canadian Natural Resources Limited


Connor Merkel was pursuing a BSc in Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta when he started an 8-month co-op with Canadian Natural Resources Limited in Horizon Operations on the Bitumen Production (BP) team.

During his 8 months with Canadian Natural, Connor immersed himself in the industry work and culture of the company.

“I have a lot of positive memories of my co-op experience at Canadian Natural,” he says. “We had a great group of students and when you live with the same group of people for 8 months they become like family.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but his adventures with Canadian Natural were just beginning. A year later, Connor would launch his dynamic career with that very same company!

The co-op experience

As an Asset Integrity engineering student, Connor’s role involved a lot of meticulous field work – but not without support from Canadian Natural. Connor was required to be thoroughly trained before starting his work.

“[There were] numerous safety courses and site orientations to help you learn your surroundings and feel more comfortable and confident on-site,” he says. “My supervisor escorted me out to the field the first few times until I was experienced enough to get around on my own.”

Before long, Connor was gaining experience in the field. He says he really enjoyed that Canadian Natural gives their student co-ops the opportunity to make a difference.

“The best thing about starting a career at Canadian Natural is how fast you get fully involved… You don’t have to be a senior employee for your ideas to be heard.”
Connor Merkel
Project Engineer, Canadian Natural Resources Limited

“If you have a suggestion and can demonstrate how it will add value, you’ll be given every opportunity to run with it,” he says.

There was also room for fun. One of the highlights of Connor’s time with Canadian Natural was a trip he took with his team to Fort McMurray in the summer. He recalls it as being one of the best summers he’s had, with his weekends filled with canoe trips, camping, and hiking.

“If you’re a student considering a co-op term at Horizon but you’re worried about living in Fort Mac (or camp), don’t sweat it, you’ll have a blast!”

However, the best part of Connor’s co-op term was when he presented the results of a project that would ensure top performance from their pipelines. The project was successful – so successful, in fact, that it reduced pipeline costs for the company by $5 million per year.

At the end of his work term, he was asked if he wanted to return to Canadian Natural full-time, after completing his final semester of university. For Connor, the decision was clear.

“I really enjoyed my work term here and was impressed with the quality of work that I was trusted with, even as a student, so I agreed that I would return to Horizon after graduation.”

The transition to a career

In October of 2013, Connor completed his degree and began his full-time career at Canadian Natural.

He joined a new Engineer in Training (EIT) program at Horizon. As part of his program, Connor spent 4 months in the Operations group, where he did a lot of hands-on work in the field. He says that this work helped him develop technical knowledge, as well as a personal network across the company’s operations.

“Not only do you learn the intricacies of the Plant, but you also create connections with the operations and maintenance personnel that you can leverage down the road when you move to an engineering group.”

After his time in Operations, Connor took on the role of Project Engineer in the Horizon group. Since he was already familiar with the workplace and his colleagues, the transition into his new role was a smooth one.

“One of the biggest supports for me was my supervisor,” says Connor. “He is a seasoned Project Engineer, so just to try and understand and replicate his thought process when going through my projects has been a huge help.”

With the guidance of his mentor, Connor has settled into his busy career. He says it’s very rewarding to see a project through from concept to completion.

Looking to the future

Connor has learned a lot during his career with Canadian Natural. He’s gained extensive technical knowledge from his time working in the field. It’s helped him see the bigger picture in his new role.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned in my short career is how important it is to be accountable and do what you say you will do,” he says. “As a Project Engineer, you work with a lot of people and you quickly learn what a positive experience it is when someone delivers what they say they will.”

Connor attributes his success to the work culture and his approachable co-workers. Since he’s still involved in the EIT program, Connor may have opportunities to move to different groups within Canadian Natural.

He’s got a tentative eye on some different areas for the future – the Maintenance, Piping Engineering, or Tailings groups are his top three choices. But despite his options for the future, Connor says he can definitely see himself happily working with Horizon for a long time.

“I can’t see any better opportunity than being a young engineer on a site that is projected to quadruple production in the coming years. My goal is to complete my P.Eng here and then become a Lead in the Project Engineering group.”

Connor says he’s thrilled with his career so far. The job is challenging, the industry is always changing, and there’s always something new to learn.

“I have the opportunity to work in all areas within BP, and with some recent changes to our engineering structure, I will soon have some new projects on the upgrading side of the plant,” he says. “You could work your entire career at Horizon and never learn it all.”

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