Varcoe: No easy solutions for Albertans facing long-term unemployment


After working in the energy sector as a geologist and manager for more than three decades, Gord McLellan was laid off a year ago, the same day his wife lost her job.

They’re both still looking for work.

After immigrating to Calgary from Siberia 15 years ago to work as a petroleum reservoir engineer, Vadim Savenkov lost his oil company job almost two years ago.

He’s also looking for work.

As politicians on the provincial campaign trail spar over employment policies and platforms, a Statistics Canada report issued Friday underscores the challenge facing thousands of Albertans who have been searching for work for months.

The labour force survey for March found 22,000 Albertans have been without a job for 52 weeks or more. That’s up from 20,900 a year earlier. Before the recession, there were fewer than 10,000 in the same predicament.

“Right now, you send your resumes and don’t see any interviews for months,” said the 48-year-old Savenkov.

“There are still hundreds and hundreds of people for just one position.”

Similarly, McLellan has been hunting for an energy job for the past year and hasn’t seen an uptick on the employment front.

“Until we solve this ability to move (oil) product outside the province, we have a bottleneck that we’re going to face … the hiring won’t really pick up,” said McLellan, 60.

“If we’ve hit bottom, we are going to stay there for a while.”

The jobs report shows Alberta’s unemployment rate dipped to 6.9 per cent in March, down 0.4 percentage points from the previous month.

Overall employment was “little changed” as gains in full-time work were offset by part-time job losses, the federal agency noted.

The unemployment rate in Edmonton last month increased marginally to 7.1 per cent, while Calgary’s rate inched up to 7.7 per cent.

Economist Trevor Tombe at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy said the latest figures continue a disconcerting employment trend that began several months ago.

Trevor Tombe, associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary.

“The recovery has effectively stalled,” he said. “We have also started to see, really unfortunately, an increase recently in the duration of unemployment.”

The average length of unemployment in Alberta sits at 23 weeks, up from 13 weeks seen four years ago, and down only slightly from 27 weeks reported at the height of the recession.

“That matters a lot. The more weeks you are unemployed for, the more difficult it is to find a job later because employers look at these long gaps as potentially a negative signal,” Tombe added.

The issue has hit hard in the oilpatch, where heavy job losses began after crude prices tanked in 2014.

While oil prices climbed above US$60 a barrel last week, petroleum producers have been reluctant to boost spending levels.

Due to technological and efficiency improvements in the sector, companies are also able to produce more oil and natural gas with fewer employees.

Savenkov, whose employment insurance benefits ran out after 10 months and has done some consulting work, notes the last job interview he had with an energy company was back in November.

He’s contemplating retraining to pivot out of the oilpatch. Leaving Calgary is another option.

“I have a family, I have three children,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to leave Calgary, really. I’d love to stay here … but if nothing comes up in the near future, I will probably leave.”

The employment challenge in Alberta has become a central issue in the election campaign.

For example, the NDP pledges to expand its petrochemical diversification program, doubling incentives to entice $75 billion in private-sector investment and generate 70,000 jobs over the next decade.

One of the UCP’s key economic planks would cut the corporate tax rate by one third to stimulate investment, creating at least 55,000 jobs, according to one estimate.

The Alberta Party would double the small business deduction limit and drop the corporate tax rate to 10 per cent from 12 per cent as part of its employment plan, which it says will create 65,000 jobs.

And the Liberals would provide $80 million a year in grants to unemployed Albertans for job training and post-secondary studies, along with lowering the corporate tax rate to 10 per cent.

In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Friday all of the parties talk about creating jobs, but he hasn’t seen enough specific policy to tackle the problem quickly.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to reporters following an update to the YYC Matters website with answers from political parties. The answers are available at Friday, April 5, 2019.

“You have to help those small businesses today, and you’ve got to figure out a way to bring in investment to create jobs here in Calgary today,” he told reporters.

But it’s debatable whether any policies can make an immediate difference in the employment situation.

Tombe believes people shouldn’t over-estimate the ability of any government to influence the broader economy.

“Government can do things at the margin, but there is no policy magic wand that can be waved to turn the labour market entirely around,” he said.

McLellan believes efforts to create jobs outside of oil and gas to diversify the economy will likely take more than a simple four-year election cycle to fix.


But the life-long Calgarian would like to hear more concrete ideas from the leaders on what they will do to improve the employment situation.

“I feel there’s hope for me, but I know it takes time,” he said Sunday.

Savenkov hasn’t heard anything he believes will make a difference to those trying to find work, but he isn’t giving up.

“All of those parties have loud announcements about changes here or there, but I’m not a political guy,” he added.

“I’m just a guy who wants to work hard, get money, grow his family and be part of this society.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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