Let’s Not Forget Alberta’s Disadvantaged
Alberta is a fantastic place to live. It’s wildly prosperous, incredibly beautiful and the idea of a war breaking out here is thankfully inconceivable.
In September, almost as many jobs were created in Alberta as in Ontario – a province with a population three times the size of ours. Average weekly earnings in Alberta are $200 more than the national average, housing construction is booming, bankruptcies are down. The list goes on.
It’s no wonder that Alberta’s population growth last year was more than double the national average.
Our province’s economic success creates the impression that bags of money and good jobs just fall from the sky. As impressions go, this is a good one to have and one of which we should be proud.
But while there is no doubt that Alberta is a great place to find a job, its reputation as an economic promised land can be misleading to newcomers and discouraging to those who are left wondering why the Alberta advantage does not seem to apply to them.
Headlines about skilled labour shortages and stories of people getting paid six figures to drive busses in Fort McMurray mask the fact that not everyone here has gotten hit on the head by a bag of money falling from above. Not everyone can pick up and move to Fort McMurray, not everyone has the right skills to fill the positions posted and a lot of jobs pay wages that don’t go particularly far in a province with average house prices approaching $400,000.
Our success may also blind us to the need for concerted action to help those who are struggling to find a place in Alberta’s booming economy.
Some Albertans – and not just kids working at fast food joints while they go to school – find themselves working for $11 an hour without anything even approaching health and dental benefits. Others graduate from school or a training program and hit a brick wall because they don’t have on-the-job experience. Still others are left wondering how to pay their mortgages when, after 20 years earning a good living in construction, their bodies won’t cooperate with them anymore.
Most of these folks are far from homeless or having to choose between feeding themselves or their kids (though this happens all too often) because they have partners with jobs or they can piece together enough to get by as long as nothing bad happens like the hot water heater suddenly conking out or the kids needing a bunch of fillings.
It’s important to remember that not everyone in Alberta is contemplating buying a vacation home in Arizona or wondering if it’s time to trade in the F150 for an Escalade.
When we forget this, we are more likely to overlook the needs of those who, while perhaps better off here than somewhere else, are still struggling. We need to be at the top of our game when it comes to things like matching skills to jobs, apprenticeships, retraining and education. A hot economy is great, but it’s not a cure-all.
Think of how discouraging it is for an unemployed Albertan to hear that there must be something seriously wrong with them if they can’t find a job. This is a sure-fire way to erode the self-confidence people need when looking for work.
Think, too, of the newcomer who heard about Alberta’s hot labour market only to find that it’s not quite as easy to land a job in their field as the hype makes it sound.
It’s also not fair to expect people to be happy with any old job that comes along. Would you take a job cleaning offices or would you hold out for one that is in your area of expertise?
We know we need to help those in obviously dire straits, but we should also remember that Alberta is home to a large number of people who, while not as desperate as some, are not thriving.
This should be our goal: a province where everyone is thriving.
The number one thing we can do to achieve this is to keep creating jobs. But we also need to remember that a booming economy is not the same as a thriving society.
By Robert Roach
Robert Roach is Senior Analyst & Thought Leader, Economics and Research, with ATB Financial. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.