Home Month and Year March 2023 School’s Back In

School’s Back In

Reskilling, upskilling leading many Calgarians back to the classroom


Breanna Geelen never saw herself as an entrepreneur. Today, she’s waking up as one.

The journey to the corner office happened quite naturally for the 27-year-old founder and CEO of Crux Laboratory, a Calgary-based manufacturer of custom orthotics and arch supports.

Geelen started working as a lab technician for a local orthotics company about eight years ago. After moving her way through the organization for several years, she saw an opportunity to catapult into a management role, but first needed to head back to school and upgrade her skills.

Geelen landed at Mount Royal University, where she enrolled in the Human Resource Management and Pillars of Management extension certificates.

“I was looking for something that was best suited to the skills I felt were missing, and I found those programs really bridged the gap for me,” she says.

Geelen started with a sneak peak – a seminar series at the university to determine if it and material was the right fit.

“I was absolutely intrigued by how easy it was to apply the information. That’s when I decided to go all the way and commit to doing the full extension certificates,” she says, noting the additional appeal was being able to complete the certificates while still working. In fact, she notes that helped as it allowed her to immediately apply at work what she was learning in the classroom.

Since then, Geelen likens the certificates to pouring rocket fuel into her career engine – which first landed her as laboratory manager and then as director of operations.

This past August, Geelen branched out and founded Crux Laboratory.

“It’s been absolutely amazing so far. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.

Looking back at the trip back to school. Geelen says it’s not just the new skills that she values the most.

“It was getting that huge confidence boost,” she says. “I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I never saw myself as a strong leader. But as I progressed through the courses, I saw a change in myself that, to this day, I’m very grateful for. Because I now very much am an entrepreneur.”

Geelen’s academic story has become so relatable to many Albertans who are choosing to reskill or upskill to meet the needs of a changing economy – whether due to challenges within the energy sector or a global pandemic.

Like Geelen, Maria Balcazar, 40, saw an opportunity to move up within her organization. So, she headed back to school to gain those few “missing” skills.

Originally from Mexico, Balcazar graduated in 2004 from the Tecnológico de Monterrey where she completed her B.A. in International Business. Fast-forward to September 2020, and Balcazar enrolled at the University of Calgary to take the Professional Writing Certificate specializing in Marketing and Public Relations.

The decision was prompted by an opportunity to lead communications at Valard Construction, where she has worked at since 2015. Notably, Balcazar saw it as a way to “refresh” her previous education and best match with the new role.

“I recognized that a lot had changed since I was last in school – especially on communications side,” recalls Balcazar. “It’s not just buying ads anymore. It’s so much more, whether that’s managing different social media platforms or making sure your website is optimized for search engines.

“It’s really about managing the brand in whole different way, both externally to the public and internally to our employees.”

Balcazar completed the 200-hour certificate the past spring and credits the experience for her recent promotion to communications manager at Valard.

“I really got everything I could out of it,” says Balcazar.

Balcazar’s thirst for learning wasn’t done there, though. She later went back and completed the Digital Marketing Certificate, also offered by the University of Calgary.

Balcazar says one of things she liked the most about both certificates was the flexibility they both offered – the writing certificate took her about a year and a half to complete, while the 100-hour digital marketing certificate took just a few months.

This flexibility, which included both online and in-class components, were important to Balcazar given she continued to work a full-time job while also being mom to two young children – and during the pandemic, nonetheless.

“I needed a program to take at my own pace – to be able to take a few courses and see what I could handle,” she says, noting many of her classmates were similarly working while completing the certificates, or reskilling after recently being laid off from their previous jobs.

That was certainly the case for Calgarian Shane Mark, 48. The welder by trade had been working for more than a decade across Western Canada. In spring 2017, however, the company he was working for at the time closed its doors.

With a tight employment market and few prospects on the near-term horizon, Mark and his wife regrouped with Mark taking on the primary responsibilities of running a growing, and increasingly busy, home.

Eventually, Mark started looking at options for reskilling with his initial focus on what was then the Health and Safety Certificate at the University of Calgary – later becoming the Occupational Health and Safety Diploma.

“At the point it changed, I had already started the certificate. So, with the support of my family, I changed course to do the entire diploma,” says Mark. “I saw it as an opportunity to get off the shop floor. Plus, I’ve always had a personal interest in workplace safety.”

The 400-hour diploma took Mark about four years to complete, with him graduating at the end of 2021. He took all the courses virtually through the university’s Design2Learn (D2L) delivery platform, which he says initially took a bit of getting used to.

“There certainly was an adjustment to being a student again, and then trying to do it all in an online format after being a welder for 15 to 16 years,” he says. “But there ended up being a real benefit to it being all online.”

He says the self-paced program provided him not only the flexibility to still balance a busy home life, but also allowed him to work part-time with the Calgary Board of Education, where he started when his daughters were in elementary school.

“The most I ever took in a semester was three courses,” says Mark. “It allowed me to continue to do everything I still wanted to do outside of the diploma.”

Looking back, Mark says the diploma provided him with a wide range of courses that he found both relatable and yet challenging. Looking forward, he says his eyes are open to more opportunities in the job market than he once thought – not just in oil and gas or fabrication, but any industry where safety is important.

In the meantime, he might not be done with his schooling just yet.

“An end goal of mine is to write the Canadian Registered Safety Professionals exam,” says Mark. “Letters after your name can set you apart from others with similar work experience. Completing this diploma program satisfies the education part of that application.”