BY RAY TURCHANSKY AND MELANIE COLLISON, EDMONTONJOURNAL.COM MARCH 6, 2012 1:52 PM
EDMONTON - Only a few years after Canadians were warned of a mass exodus of educated workers to the United States and countries farther afield, a “reverse brain drain” is starting to hit Western Canada in particular.
Amid soaring unemployment rates elsewhere in the wake of a global recession, Alberta faces labour shortages pegged at 77,000 in 2019 by Ernst & Young and 114,278 in 2021 by the government of Alberta. The result is three avenues of incoming workers — from overseas, the U.S., and the eastern provinces.
When immigrants first arrive in Canada, they settle where family and friends live, mostly in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
But once they get their bearings, they assess job prospects, mostly in Alberta.
The province’s population grew by 354,907 from 2006 to 2011, according to Statistics Canada’s newly released census results, and 10 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in Canada are in Alberta.
Given that immigration accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s population growth, it’s clear that growth is fuelled by immigration. Detailed community profiles aren’t out yet, but the numbers tell a story: up 125,000 in Edmonton, 135,500 in Calgary, 14,250 in Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo and 11,000 in Lethbridge.
“It’s part of a fundamental shift we’re experiencing,” says University of Calgary sociology professor Harry Hiller, the author of Second Promised Land: Migration to Alberta and the Transformation of Canadian Society.
“The thing that has been so compelling is the large number of people moving here from other provinces, more from within the country than outside,” Hiller says.
“Alberta is the dominant magnet for people moving within the country. The magnets for people from outside the country are B.C. and Ontario. Our growth is primarily because of internal migration. Over the last five years, we have had increasing international migration.”
Unemployment rates are roughly four per cent lower in Western Canada than in the U.S., and considerably lower than in other parts of the world. Ontario has joined the Provincial Nominee Program, directing tens of thousands of immigrants to other provinces, while Ontario’s share of national immigration fell from 60 per cent to 40.
“The issue is not going to be encouraging immigrants to Alberta; they will come. The issue will be making sure they have meaningful employment in the areas we have labour shortage,” says Erick Ambtman, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
Demand is coming from Alberta’s economic growth in energy, agriculture and health care, Ambtman told the Economic Society of Northern Alberta (ESNA). And supply is hurt by an aging labour force.
“Eventually, we’ll see ways to encourage the aboriginal population to be more engaged in the labour force, people with disabilities, other visible minorities, women, and we need to retain older workers,” he says.
“But all growth in the labour market is expected to come from immigrants until 2015. We are a magnet for anyone who’s mobile, and immigrants are mobile. There will be 114,000 postings, and they’ll be told if they want to work, the place to go will be Alberta. In Ontario, they’ll have a lot different conversation, because they’re trying to figure out how not to lose immigrants. In Alberta, our issue will be how to engage them and give them meaningful work.”
The Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program bolsters immigrant numbers by targeting individuals with skills Alberta needs. About half are between the ages of 25 and 44, more than one-third have university degrees and about 10 per cent come with post-secondary diplomas or trade certificates.
Sandra Miles, of Miles Employment Group in Vancouver, says she had an “unprecedented” 6,500 job applicants from the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand during 2011. International immigration to Saskatchewan during the third quarter of 2011 was the highest for any quarter since 1971.
“The low-hanging fruit is recognition of qualifications, figuring out how a nurse from Manila can be a nurse in St. Albert,” Ambtman said. “Another thing we need is a bridging program, where an accountant from India can learn to say no to the boss. They have to learn how to address the culture of the workforce. Often it’s not a language barrier, it’s a communication barrier. A big part of keeping them here is going to be integration; if they put down roots, marry an Edmontonian or have a group of friends, they’re much less likely to move.
“The shortage will be in skilled labour, and you can’t just take a high school person and address an issue, you have to have people with certain skill sets. We won’t have to send people to university to become accountants, they will come to Canada as accountants.
“But you will need to have managers and individuals who can work with a multicultural labour force. One in five Albertans in Edmonton is an immigrant, 10 years from now it will be one in four, and 20 years from now it’s going to be one in three. Those soft skills are going to be a big part of the answer in terms of ensuring we can incorporate newcomers into the labour force.”
The attraction of Americans will be intriguing.
“I think if you would ask most Americans looking for work, they wouldn’t have the first idea where to look; and actually there are a lot of opportunities not that far away from home for them,” says Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB Financial.
“When you think about our foreign temporary worker situation, there are a lot of strained resources on English as a second language, and the training for new Canadians,” Hirsch says. “With Americans, we wouldn’t have to do that same kind of cultural training.”
An ATB Financial report by economist Will Van’t Veld noted that unemployment among construction workers in some areas of the U.S. exceeds 20 per cent. At the same time, heavy-duty mechanics earn 35-per-cent higher wages in Alberta than in the U.S., while carpenters here make 36 per cent more.
Van’t Veld’s report concludes: “With the Canadian dollar above par, plenty of work opportunities, a favourable wage differential and a tax rate that’s competitive to most states, Alberta is becoming an easier sell.”
But the report concedes the Temporary Foreign Worker Program remains a major stumbling block.
Laura Lochman, consul general of the U.S. for Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, agrees.
“The Canadian private and government sides need to look at ways to facilitate bringing more American workers up,” Lochman told the ESNA conference. “There’s that somewhat arduous process to go through now in terms of the Foreign Temporary Worker Program; Labour Market Opinions (for which an employer must apply before hiring a foreign worker) often take many months and are specific to one company. This could be better managed for a freer flow (of workers) across the border.”
Inside Canada, the movement of workers from East to West was apparent in the recent census, which showed Ontario lost 57,000 people to other provinces. Many of those were young people, eyeing overall provincial unemployment rates of 4.9 per cent in Alberta, 5.0 per cent in Saskatchewan and 5.4 per cent in Manitoba, compared with 8.1 per cent in Ontario. From 2006 to 2011, Edmonton’s population increased 11.2 per cent, to 812,200.
One speed bump restricting migration within Canada is employment insurance rules, as benefits are tied to employment rates in various areas. Workers in places of high unemployment can be off work half as long and receive twice the benefits of people in centres with low unemployment rates, thus restricting movement.
Top 10 source countries 2010:
U.K. & colonies 1,878
South Korea 538
Source: Alberta Immigration Progress Report 2011
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