EDMONTON – An executive from a big-name construction company drew laughs at a recent business conference when he urged everyone in the room to go home and make babies — so dire is the need for workers in Alberta.
It’s no joke for employers; The labour shortage that plagued Albertans with long lines for service and inflated costs for purchases from burgers to upgraders is back.
The underlying factors never went away even when the economy tanked in late 2008 and 2009, argues Mike Corbett, senior vice-president of David Aplin Recruiting.
In fact, things may be worse this time around given an expected wave of retirements in 2011 — the year when baby boomers start turning 65, and healthy economies in regions, which traditionally send labour to Alberta.
“We don’t have the access to human capital that we did in the past,” Corbett says. “We may not see the economic expansion that we saw, but we’ll find it more difficult to find those key resources.
“People are three or four years older and the stock market is almost at 14,000 and they’ve recovered a lot of what they’ve lost so their appetite to retire is probably stronger today than it was in ’08 or ’09.”
Corbett warned of a labour shortage as early as January 2010. “Although the unemployment rate is up, we haven’t done anything to solve the labour shortage problem that we experienced back in ’07,” he said at the time.
Now, the Alberta government forecasts a shortage of at least 77,000 workers within the next decade.
“We’re walking into a perfect storm,” Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says.
“Economic recovery, the return of skills shortages, the aging of our workforce and intensifying global competition for workers all highlight the need to continue our focus on developing the workforce.”
Employers say they can’t find enough workers now — never mind 10 years from now.
“The market is getting tougher,” said Mark McNeill, president of Master Flo Valve, an Edmonton-based exporter of choke valves and specialty control valves for the oil and gas industry.
“I’m looking for executives. I’m looking for engineers. We’re looking for machinists. We’re looking for service techs.”
He wants to hire 50 people, “if we can find them.”
Bob Walker, vice-president for northern Alberta for Ledcor Construction Ltd., has an even bigger need. “Our company needs a thousand people today,” Walker says. “Right today, I need a thousand more people than I needed month last and we hired more people and I still need a thousand more people.”
The problem is traditional sources of labour are drying up, he told the Edmonton Real Estate Forum in May. “In five years, we’ll laugh about how good it was today,” Walker says.
Canadians are having fewer children, to 1.6 kids per family down from 2.3 kids in the baby boom generation, he says.
And workers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Atlantic region are staying to work in their increasingly busy home provinces.
On top of that, a “terrible” new federal policy forces people who immigrate under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program to leave the country after four years, then wait four more years before they can reapply, Walker says.
“We’ve got to make it easier for people to want to come here to work,” he says.
“We want them to come and move here. We can’t make it where they’re only going to be coming for a short time. We want a future for them. Where else are they going to be investing in building in the next 10 years in North America? It’s going to be in Alberta.
“We’ve got to convince our politicians that it’s OK to bring more people in and allow them to live here.”
Making matters worse, Alberta workers are themselves being targeted by labour-hungry employers from abroad.
Big players such as BHP Billiton, Caltex Australia, Origin Energy, Sinclair Knight Merz, Rio Tinto and Barmico held recruitment expos in Calgary and Edmonton in May.
“The massive rollout of Australian LNG (liquefied natural gas) and other resource projects in 2011 has prompted the need for offshore talent in the oil and gas, mining and engineering industries in Australia,” says Rupert Merrick, of Working In Ltd., which held the weekend expos.
“We recognize that Alberta has an excellent international reputation for highly skilled individuals in these fields.”
Working in Australia offers international work experience, pay rates on average 20 per cent higher than Alberta, a balmier climate and exotic adventure opportunities.
Paul Verhesen, president of Clark Builders, told the audience at the Edmonton Real Estate Forum the construction industry is already close to its 2008 employment peak.
The difference is that in 2007-08, Clark had 400-500 people who lived outside of the province working for the company.
“Sure, they’ll come back, but only if we’re paying top dollar, only if we look after their accommodations and they have all these conditions,” Verhesen says.
Verhesen says Clark Builders is now looking south for help.
“The U.S. is in slow recovery mode, if it’s recovering at all and there’s a real opportunity to bring a lot of those folks to Alberta to build our projects,” Verhesen says.
McNeill, at Master Flo Valve, doesn’t believe in recruiting from afar. “We don’t bring in a lot of foreign workers. We believe there’s enough people out there.”
Employers just have to adjust their recruiting techniques for a new kind of job hunter, he says.
“It’s all Internet-driven. They don’t go knock on doors anymore. That’s really unfortunate because we don’t have Facebook or Twitter in our organization, but we’re going to have to go there because that’s how these guys are finding their jobs.”
Meanwhile, Employment Minister Lukaszuk has launched a provincial strategy aimed at convincing aging workers to put off retirement.
“Mature workers offer invaluable expertise and knowledge, especially to the younger generations,” Lukaszuk says. “Attracting, hiring and retaining older workers makes good business sense.”
Lukaszuk says he also wants to make better use of other groups under-represented in the workforce — aboriginals, youths, immigrants.
Ledcor’s Walker says women are another undertapped source of skilled labour.
“We’re saying to the ladies with the jobs in the Walmarts and stuff, come and be a tradesperson and make some good salaries and have a nice future,’ Walker says.
“The next biggest category that we’re looking at right now is the aboriginal community.
“They’re great tradesmen and when we built the River Cree (Resort) project, 20 per cent of our labour force was First Nations. We were on time, on budget and it was a quality project.”
But Employment Minister Lukaszuk says adding from the ranks of unemployed and underemployed Albertans won’t be enough.
“At the end of the day, our population growth is still not catching up with our labour force requirement to our economic growth.”
Others say the labour shortage goes beyond employer recruiting and immigration policies — it’s making Alberta, and Edmonton, more attractive as a place to move.
“I don’t know that we’re doing the things necessary to attract people to the local economy here in terms of sheer numbers,” says Mike Corbett, of David Aplin Recruiting, adding the competition for labour is now global.
“We’ve got to make Edmonton a destination that people want to come to so when you get into debates about a downtown arena, an arts district or things of that nature — it takes on a different perspective than this is something for the Oilers.
“We need to figure out a way to brand the city here so that we’ll attract that segment of the population that will help drive the economy.
“The City of Edmonton, as a city-region is in competition, quite frankly, with the world now,” says Gary Klassen, general manager of planning and development for the City of Edmonton.
He says he often hears company executives reluctantly moving to Edmonton, only to find they actually like the place. He also says the city needs to brand itself as a place to move to.
“The entire city needs to think about how we move that agenda forward because we need to be able to attract the talent that we’re talking about,” Klassen says.
“What we have to appreciate is that when we’re building a city — the attractiveness and the amenities — that is the table stakes around the world that we’re competing with.”
Pick up a copy of The Next Wave in Wednesday’s Journal for more on Edmonton’s economic outlook.
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