Alberta towers above other provinces in the number of long-term unemployed | CBC News

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released its labour force survey for April, the agency’s monthly household survey that aspires to assess the health of the Canadian economy.

That survey offered up some positive indicators for Alberta: jobs in the province were up by nearly 16,000, while the province’s unemployment rate dipped to its lowest level since 2015.

Those numbers, said Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s minister for jobs, economy and innovation, were reflective of a plan well-executed, and of the government’s policies enticing investment to the province.

There is, however, concern among some economists when it comes to who makes up Alberta’s unemployment rate, which registered at 5.9 per cent in that survey — and the long-term implications should such trends continue.

Typically, recessions do prompt the number of long-term unemployed individuals (those who have been out of work for six months or longer) to increase. 

But what makes Alberta’s figures stand out among Canadian provinces is how many people are long-term unemployed: 32.9 per cent. That’s far above the second highest, Newfoundland and Labrador, at 22.3 per cent, while the Canadian average is 20.9 per cent.

“There’s all sorts of spillover implications from this,” said Trevor Tombe, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary.

That share of long-term unemployment, Tombe notes, is roughly about the same as it was during the 2015 recession.

The provincial government attributes that rate to Alberta’s “triple black swan” of economic shocks: a collapse in energy prices, contractions in the global economy and the impact of the global pandemic.

Their data says most of those people experiencing long-term unemployment are 50 years of age and older; 52 per cent are men while 48 per cent are women. And the province says most (81.6 per cent) aren’t tied to any specific industry or occupation.

Getting back to work isn’t always simple. The longer someone is unemployed, the more it may be perceived that their skills have eroded or become outdated. Long gaps on resumes can be uncomfortable to explain. And those in older demographics may simply transition earlier into retirement than planned should opportunities not arise.

“Then there are these broader concerns for policymakers, in that you’d have a lower labour force participation rate. And so that translates into economic growth and government revenue,” Tombe said.

Finding their way back

Not all industries bore the brunt of the pandemic equally — the arts and entertainment sector, for example, was hit hard and is projected to be among the last to fully recover.

Doug Charters was working full time as an audio technician and stagehand with Calgary’s union for film and stage technicians when the pandemic hit. He was out of most work for nearly two years.

“It’s kind of like almost drowning. And then you get back to the beach, you know, and you realize, oh, well, that was close. There’s still other people out there that didn’t make it,” he said.

Alberta towers above other provinces in the number of long-term unemployed | CBC News
Charters, a full-time professional audio technician and stagehand with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, founds out his weeks playing in a band called Pistol Noon as a guitarist. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Of course, the province’s overall economic health is coloured by the status of its biggest industrial sector, the oil and gas industry.

Prior to the pandemic, many long-term unemployed workers in the province were displaced workers from that industry, said Tombe, largely support workers — those jobs associated with drilling, exploration and the development and construction of facilities.

“That’s really tied to investment in the sector, which dropped significantly during that recession,” Tombe said. “That really hasn’t recovered, even despite recent high oil prices. 

“And many of those workers were younger, relatively lower education workers. That makes it difficult to transition into other types of activities.”

The pandemic led to further job shedding in the industry. In February 2021, there were 15,500 workers in the oil and gas sector actively looking for employment.

Alberta towers above other provinces in the number of long-term unemployed | CBC News
The oil and gas industry is experiencing a shortage of workers, but economists say jobs lost prior to the pandemic haven’t all returned amid a boom in the price of oil. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Since then, the price of oil has surged — and that has actually led to labour shortages in the industry. 

But Pat Hufnagel-Smith, a labour market consultant who studies the energy sector, says the jobs that are being generated aren’t necessarily the same as those that were lost over the past few years.

“On the demand side, there’s lots of demand for high-tech workers,” she said. “While there’s some transferability, [it’s] certainly not the kind of skills transferability needed to absorb some of those workers that were impacted, say, 2014 through 2016.”

According to industry, those shortages of workers have prevented further growth from taking place, even as oil prices soar. 

The president of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors told The Canadian Press in March that the industry is under-equipped to respond to demand, and its ability to attract people has suffered.

That presents a paradox, said Alicia Planincic, manager of policy and economics with the Business Council of Alberta.

On the one hand, she said, you have a group of Albertans struggling to find work, and on the other, employers having challenges finding and hiring the workers they need.

“The way that we kind of square those two things is the fact that the skill sets and the qualities that employers are looking for is different from the skill sets and qualities of the folks who are out of work,” she said.

What’s to be done?

For some, the search continues. Others in the industry have found their way back.

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 nearly a year.

“I would have to say that it got pretty scary. A bit like a roller-coaster,” said Baker, who has since found a new position.

“It just keeps going on and on and on for months, right? Because it really was 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 — is intended to create new opportunities, including for those who are long-term unemployed.

Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Vancouver-based Centre for Future Work, said Alberta’s figures 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 normal circle and try to find positions for some of these long-term unemployed people.”

Alberta towers above other provinces in the number of long-term unemployed | CBC News
Trevor Tombe is an economics professor at the University of Calgary. He says the impact of long-term unemployment could have all sorts of spillover effects on the province. (Colin Hall/CBC)

There is no easy lever the government can pull to solve the problem, Tombe said, but there are options on the table. 

Subsidies could be provided to employers who take on apprentices, for example. He said the rates also raise questions around whether individual targeted income support programs might be required.

“All sorts of different initiatives really do need to be supported by the government, and they have started to move in that direction,” Tombe said. “But it is going to be a long process.”

Still, for those who have been out of work for more than six months, the experience can be anxiety-inducing.

For Kelsey Miller, who found a job with Alberta Ballet after being off work for close to 18 months, going back to work was a huge relief.

“Our first day back would have been late October with Swan Lake,” she said. 

“I gotta 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.”

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