Alberta's woes: too many jobs, not enough people to fill them

EDMONTON - With an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, Alberta currently fares better than any other Canadian province. But despite being fairly insulated from the economic turmoil plaguing the rest of the world, our oil-rich province's economy is not without problems.

Unlike south of the border, though, Alberta's biggest labour worry is that there are actually 114,000 more jobs than people to fill them.

So in an effort to help find solutions to that predicament, the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour shortage, comprised of 19 groups and businesses, has been formed. Its key message is that it should be easier for people to come and work in our prairie province.

"If you look at the issue of labour shortages, the problem is getting worse, not better," said Tim Shipton of the Alberta Enterprise Group.

"Right now...the governments seem to be talking at each other and not engaging in a conversation about the issues and finding productive, positive ways forward," added Richard Truscott with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

To reverse that trend, the coalition believes the government should help by easing immigration restrictions.

On the provincial front, they say to write to the Minister of Human Services, Dave Hancock, who tells us he's already in agreement.

"While we need to make sure that every Albertan has an opportunity to get the skills they need to participate in the economy, even with that we're going to need others."

It's a realization that some local businesses can support.

At Edmonton's All-Weather Windows, Paul Taylor said they're really starting to notice the talent pool shrinking as the number of job applications aren't keeping pace with order forms.

"It's just harder to get the right people into the organization," he said.

And while they remember this pattern from the last boom, this time, experts say there's a big difference: this boom isn't expected to be about western Canada's oil industry, but rather, it is due largely to an aging population and too many retirees.

Not everyone agrees with the new coalition's views, though. The Alberta Federation of Labour believes the problem facing Alberta is what it considers to be the government's failure to set a reasonable pace to oilsands development.

"If these employers really want to be able to man these projects, then they should talk to the government about approving 5 or 10 projects at once instead of 65 multi-billion dollar projects going on all at the same time," said the AFL's Gil McGowan.

He considers the coalition's solution of loosening immigration restrictions to be a short-term solution which will have long-term consequences of lowered wages.

McGowan said a better alternative would be for projects to be stretched out over longer periods of time "so that our existing Canadian construction labour force can do the work and then we can have 23 to 30 years of good employment for our trades people as oppposed to 5 years of intense development by temporary foreign workers followed by a bust, because I believe that's where we're headed."

While the groups may disagree on how to achieve change, both agree on that finding political solutions is especially important now, before the problem becomes even more widespread.

Global TV Edmonton, Fri Mar 2 2012

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