Improving the labor market in Alberta’s mountain cities; housing is still a problem

Finding suitable housing for new workers is a problem

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Alberta’s mountain towns face one of the province’s most acute housing shortages as the government reinvigorates its efforts to attract permanent migrant workers, although the Ministry of Tourism has shifted its focus toward expanding Alberta’s rural tourism offerings.

The Alberta government announced Tuesday a new immigration channel, the Alberta Advantage Immigration Program, aimed at Alberta’s tourism and hospitality industry that will nominate experienced temporary workers for permanent residency in Alberta. Workers must have worked in the sector for at least six months rather than the normal one-year wait, and must have a full-time, non-seasonal job offer to be eligible.

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Several Rocky Mountain municipalities welcomed the news but said it’s too early to say whether it will help alleviate labor shortages in their local tourism sectors.

“It’s very difficult right now to quantify the impact it will have,” said Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland, the city’s only mayor. Since pandemic restrictions were lifted in recent years, “it has been a struggle” to attract enough workers, specifically temporary foreign workers from New Zealand and Australia, who have been reluctant to return in pre-COVID numbers.

But finding suitable housing for new workers is a problem for the city, geographically limited by Parks Canada boundaries.

Jasper currently has a zero percent residential vacancy rate.

“Homelessness in Jasper is nothing like homelessness in Calgary… here, people can find some form of accommodation, but they live in densely packed congregate housing and living arrangements that are not really appropriate,” Ireland said. She added that Jasper has a handful of infill developments in the works.

Jasper
An aerial view of the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park from the top of Whistler Mountain. getty

Banff is also notably limited by the boundary of its four-square-kilometer national park: people must work in the city to live there, and new workers must find housing before accepting a job in the city.

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The city has a shortfall of between 700 and 1,000 housing spaces, said Sharon Oakley, housing manager for the city of Banff. Its vacancy rate is currently 0.3 percent, she said, adding that the prospect of receiving support from the federal government’s Housing Accelerator Fund has caught the attention of local council.

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Meanwhile, Canmore’s tourism agency said its temporary and seasonal workers finally returned in pre-pandemic numbers last summer, but its tourism industry had struggled until then. Rachel Ludwig, executive director of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis, said she’s not sure if the new influx of immigration will increase the number of workers coming to the city, which sits notably outside the national park boundaries.

The latest from the Career Resource Center labor market review He said the high cost of housing in the Bow Valley “has led to substantial workforce turnover, making it increasingly difficult for local businesses to attract and retain employees.”

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Housing is often the biggest obstacle for workers interested in moving to Canmore, Ludwig said. The living wage in Canmore is $38.80, the Alberta Living Wage Network reported in November.

“When someone comes or wants to come to the city, we will interview them … and let them know that it might be difficult to find housing,” Ludwig said. “When things get tough and they can’t find housing opportunities, they may not even start, they may not even come to Canmore.”

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Rows of homes in the Canadian Rockies of Canmore, Alberta, with a spectacular view of Rundle Mountain in the background. Photo by ronniechua /Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alberta seeks to grow tourism industry

Alberta aims to double its tourism economy to $20 billion in tourism spending by 2035, Schow told Postmedia in December. After tourists spent $10.7 billion in Alberta in 2022, the province increased that figure Wednesday to $25 billion, saying it is increasingly focusing on attractions located outside the reach of its popular national parks.

“We would consider (the parks) the crown jewel of Alberta. But they are very full and there is not much room to grow in the parks,” Schow said in December.

When asked by a reporter Tuesday what the province will do to ensure new tourism workers have accommodation, Schow said the province is “working on a solution.”

“One of the main issues that continues to arise is staff accommodation. “It’s not unique to (Jasper)… but it is crucial to the success of the industry going forward,” Schow said at Tuesday’s press conference.

The province announced vague plans Wednesday to grow its tourism economy, saying it is focusing on “both Alberta’s best-known tourist destinations and destinations that are still largely undiscovered and underexplored.”

The province did not announce any new funding initiatives related to the announcement.

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