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January 25, 2021

OPINION: Three ways we can attack Alberta’s long-term unemployment

As appeared in Calgary Herald

It is no secret that Albertans are struggling more than other Canadians to find work. In a province used to labour shortages, we are now facing the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. But recent data shows that the problem is actually even worse than headline numbers suggest. According to Statistics Canada, Alberta also has the highest proportion of long-term unemployment in the country. In fact, the majority, 51 per cent, of those unemployed in Alberta have been jobless for at least three months.

The problem isn’t just about taking a bit longer to find work. Long-term unemployment has important consequences for individual Albertans and for the economy as a whole. We know the longer someone remains unemployed, the more difficult it becomes for that person to get a job in the future, and the more significant the impact can be on their life. Long resumé gaps are viewed less favourably by employers, people miss out on on-the-job training and advancements in the field, and skills can degrade. Like a hockey player who misses an entire season, it can take more work to get back into game shape. But it is not impossible, and that’s why we need to give these people a hand up. More on that later.

his problem is also likely to remain for some time. Alberta business leaders’ future hiring expectations are slowly improving, but there are still more business leaders who expect to be reducing their employee count than raising it this year.

It’s not all bad news. Several major projects are underway in Alberta that will boost employment and for, four straight months, more new businesses have opened than closed in Alberta. As famous Alberta country artist Brett Kissel sings, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” But tough people need help too sometimes. Beyond the economic consequences, long-term unemployment will exacerbate Alberta’s looming mental health crisis.

What can be done? Here are three ideas:

First, the federal Emergency Wage Subsidy program needs to be maintained and enhanced with further support to the hardest-hit industries. Today that program is paying the equivalent of 64,000 Albertan salaries. Were it to end swiftly, we could easily see the true unemployment rate jump 3.5 points higher, into the 15 per cent range.

Second, is federal stimulus spending. The federal government has signalled that a $100-billion recovery program will be targeted at both economic and environmental benefits. With a high need for both employment and emissions reduction projects in Alberta, the opportunity to do some of the greatest good per dollar exists here. When one house on the street is on fire, that’s where you spray the water. In that same way, federal stimulus spending should go to the regions of the country with higher unemployment and world-class emissions reduction projects like carbon capture utilization and storage, and future energies like hydrogen and nuclear.

Third, is a heightened focus on workforce retraining and reskilling — what many are calling just transition. As a result of COVID-19, automation and technology and shifting investment to a lower carbon future, many jobs are being lost permanently. Optimally, this would be jointly funded by both the provincial and federal governments, and in certain instances business as well. There remain thousands of job vacancies in Alberta. Industries like innovation and technology, agriculture and forestry are all experiencing labour shortages, unable to find people with the right skills to fill vacant positions. A recent pilot initiative from AltaML to train people for data science professions received over 500 applicants for eight spots, and companies are lining up to hire the graduates. For the benefit of Albertans and prosperity, we must grow the number, scope and scale of these programs across the province to begin to give people work and hope.

This matters for more than our economy. As we learned through COVID, a job is about a lot more than a paycheque. A good job delivers dignity, belonging and self-actualization. Sadly, some people have been without those for too long.

Adam Legge is president of the Business Council of Alberta.

Feature image credit: Calgary Herald

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