Alberta takes ‘whole press’ approach to commercial industry shortage

There is a “skills mismatch within Alberta’s economy,” economist said

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As Calgary immigration agencies report long wait lists for vocational training programs, Premier Danielle Smith says her government is taking an “all-pressure” approach to addressing Alberta’s labor shortage.

Despite recording record population growth over the past two years, Alberta still faces a major labor shortage in the trades as baby boomers leave the industry and regain popularity after the COVID-19 pandemic created instability labor for workers.

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That has contributed to a “skills mismatch within Alberta’s economy,” resulting in labor shortages in a handful of industries, said Mike Holden, chief economist at the Alberta Business Council.

“Alberta has a specific labor shortage and unmet demand in areas like retail, as well as health care, especially nursing and some other areas,” Holden said in an interview.

When presenting the government’s 2024-25 budget last week, Finance Minister Nate Horner said projects like Dow Inc.’s $9 billion Fort Saskatchewan petrochemical project “have the potential to completely deplete the province of certain types of skilled labor.”

Job openings in Alberta for the trades — up 13 per cent on a compounded annual average from 2018 to 2023 — substantially outpaced population growth over the same period, according to a Wednesday report from the Alberta Business Council. The trades were second behind health care job openings, which grew 16 percent during the same period.

There are even starker shortages in specific occupational categories, such as helpers and laborers, technical construction trades, and transportation drivers, which have seen increases of more than 150 percent in job openings over the past five years.

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Danielle Smith with directors and staff of the Catholic Immigration Society of Calgary
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith talks with directors and staff of the Catholic Immigration Society of Calgary at the society’s Embracing the Future of Alberta Trades event at the Petroleum Club in Calgary on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Monika Bhandari, YYCTrades training program operations manager for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), said the confluence of baby boomers retiring from the sector and COVID-19, which disrupted job stability for workers for several years, has left a hole in the sector that may take several years to shore up.

“That gap is widening,” he said, adding that CCIS is seeing more apprentices being trained for full-time jobs, but the results may not be seen for three or four years.

“We are trying to fill that void. “We don’t see that happening right now.”

CCIS currently offers one class each year for electrical, plumbing, and carpentry. Bahndari said if CCIS funding were to increase, the waiting list for its programs could double or triple the number of classes.

Alberta is Calling campaign renewed

The provincial government is attempting to address the issue through a renewed Alberta is Calling campaign, which will offer a $5,000 attraction bonus to 2,000 skilled workers through a refundable tax credit. Alberta has released few details about the program and has not said which sectors it will target. More details are expected in the coming months.

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Smith, speaking Wednesday at the Calgary Petroleum Club, said Alberta will “do a little more limited call” for this iteration of the campaign. That effort will run alongside a Canada-wide advertising campaign and will align with its immigration nomination program, he said.

“We’re doing a full-court press and you’ll see a lot more of that in the coming months.”

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Alberta’s 2024-25 budget also allocates $100 million for apprenticeship programs that will add 3,200 positions. “There’s a lot more we’re looking at,” Smith said, adding that she’s asked Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides to look into whether the province can give high school students advanced entry into trades programs, which she said , would allow them to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. .

While labor shortages make things difficult for certain industries, such as home construction, Smith said labor shortages are “a very good problem.”

“It means we have a strong economy and there are almost unlimited opportunities for Albertans and people looking to move here,” he said. “The labor shortage is, as I say, much better than the alternative; however, it is a challenge.”

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