Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released its Labor Force Survey for April, the agency’s monthly household survey that aspires to gauge the health of the Canadian economy.
That survey provided positive indicators for Alberta: jobs in the province rose by nearly 16,000, while the province’s unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since 2015.
These numbers, said Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, reflect a well-executed plan and government policies that are attracting investment to the province.
However, some economists are concerned about who makes up Alberta’s unemployment rate, which came in at 5.9% in this survey, and the long-term implications if such trends continue.
Typically, recessions lead to an increase in the number of long-term unemployed (those who have been out of work for six months or more).
But what sets Alberta’s figures apart among Canadian provinces is the number of long-term unemployed: 32.9%. This is well above the second highest, Newfoundland and Labrador, at 22.3%, while the Canadian average is 20.9%.
“There are all kinds of spinoffs to this,” said Trevor Tombe, an economics professor at the University of Calgary.
This share of long-term unemployment, Tombe notes, is about the same as during the 2015 recession.
The provincial government attributes the rate to Alberta’s “triple black swan” of economic shocks: a crash in energy prices, contractions in the global economy and the impact of the global pandemic.
Their data indicates that most long-term unemployed people are 50 and older; 52% are men and 48% are women. And the province says most (81.6%) are not tied to any particular industry or profession.
Getting back to work isn’t always easy. The longer a person has been unemployed, the more they may feel that their skills have eroded or become obsolete. Long gaps on resumes can be uncomfortable to explain. And people in older demographics might just retire earlier than expected if the opportunities don’t arise.
“Then there are these broader concerns for policymakers, in that you would have a lower labor force participation rate. And so that translates into economic growth and government revenue,” Tombe said. .
find their way
Not all industries have felt the brunt of the pandemic equally – the arts and entertainment sector, for example, has been hit hard and is projected to be among the last to fully recover.
Doug Charters was working full-time as a sound technician and machinist for the Calgary Film and Stage Technicians Union when the pandemic hit. He was unemployed for almost two years.
“It’s kind of like drowning. And then you go back to the beach, you know, and you realize, oh, well, it was close. There are still other people who didn’t survive” , did he declare.
Of course, the province’s overall economic health is colored by the state of its largest industrial sector, the oil and gas industry.
Before the pandemic, many of the province’s long-term unemployed were displaced workers from that industry, Tombe said, largely support workers — those jobs associated with drilling, exploration and development, and construction. of facilities.
“It’s really tied to investment in the sector, which has dropped significantly during this recession,” Tombe said. “It really hasn’t recovered, even despite the recent high oil prices.
“And many of those workers were younger, relatively uneducated workers. That makes it difficult to transition into other types of work.”
The pandemic has led to further job cuts in the industry. In February 2021, there were 15,500 workers in the oil and gas sector actively seeking employment.
Since then, the price of oil has jumped — and this has actually led to labor shortages in industry.
But Pat Hufnagel-Smith, a labor market consultant who studies the energy sector, says the jobs created aren’t necessarily the same as those lost in recent years.
“On the demand side, there’s a lot of demand for high-tech workers,” she said. “While there is some transferability, [it’s] certainly not the kind of skills transferability needed to absorb some of these workers who were affected, say, from 2014 to 2016.”
According to the industry, these labor shortages have prevented further growth, even as oil prices soar.
The president of the Canadian Energy Contractors Association said The Canadian Press in March that the industry is under-equipped to meet demand and that its ability to attract people has suffered.
This presents a paradox, said Alicia Planincic, policy and economics manager at the Business Council of Alberta.
On the one hand, she says, you have a group of Albertans struggling to find work, and on the other, employers struggling to find and hire the workers they need.
“The way we reconcile those two things is the fact that the skills and qualities that employers want are different from the skills and qualities that people who are out of work have,” she said.
What to do ?
For some, the search continues. Others in the industry have found their way.
Andrew Baker has worked as a planner in the oil and gas industry since around 2004. When the pandemic hit, he found himself unemployed for almost a year.
“I have to say it got pretty scary. Kind of like a roller coaster,” said Baker, who has since found a new position.
“It just goes on and on for months, doesn’t it? Because it was really a pick of the crop. People were taking jobs that were way below their skill level.”
The provincial government says its Alberta at Work initiative — announced as part of this year’s budget — aims to create new opportunities, including for the long-term unemployed.
Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Center for Future Work in Vancouver, said Alberta’s numbers pose a challenge to government and industry at all levels.
“They don’t have to look very far to see people who want to work and can work and definitely have skills that can be adapted to new jobs,” Stanford said.
“So the challenge for employers is to look outside your usual circle and try to find positions for some of these long-term unemployed.”
There is no easy lever the government can pull to fix the problem, Tombe said, but there are options on the table.
Subsidies could be granted to employers who take on apprentices, for example. He said the rates also raise questions about whether individual targeted income support programs might be needed.
“All sorts of different initiatives really need to be supported by the government, and they’ve started to move in that direction,” Tombe said. “But it’s going to be a long process.”
Yet for those who have been unemployed for more than six months, the experience can be stressful.
For Kelsey Miller, who found a job with Alberta Ballet after being off work for nearly 18 months, returning to work has been a huge relief.
“Our first day back would have been late October with Swan Lake,” she says.
“I have to say the moment the curtain went up it was really hard to hold back the tears. Just to feel like, oh man, we’re back.”