Why Alberta still has the highest employment rate in the country, despite all the job losses

Alberta's unemployment rate has nearly doubled in the past two years but its employment rate remains the highest in the country.

Young population and older adults who continue to work keep province's economy resilient, economist says

People wearing work boots and business attire walk across a busy downtown crosswalk. In the background is a large office tower.
People make their way to work in downtown Calgary, where the unemployment rate is the highest of all major cities in Canada. At the same time, however, Calgary still has one of the highest employment rates of Canadian cities, due in large part to a younger population. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Alberta has seen tens of thousands of layoffs in the past couple of years but its employment rate — a measure of working-age people who have jobs — remains the highest in the country.

That seemingly contradictory situation is due to Alberta's relatively young population and the fact that older people in this province tend to keep working longer than other Canadians.

It also means Alberta's economy is relatively resilient, said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe.

"We were better placed than most other provinces to absorb the kind of economic shock that we've seen over the past two years," he said.

Statistics Canada measures a province's employment rate by dividing the number of working people by the total number of people over the age 15.

At 66.7 per cent, Alberta's rate is the highest among all provinces as of October, and well above the national rate of 61.2 per cent.

Andrew Fields, an analyst with Statistics Canada's labour data division, said Alberta's situation has a lot to do with the fact that it's such a young province, with a median age of just 36.3.

By contrast, the national median age is 40.6 and the oldest province is Newfoundland and Labrador, with a median age of 45.3.

"This means that, despite a decline, there are still more people working as a proportion of Alberta's total population than the other provinces," Fields said.

The proportion of people aged 55 and older in Alberta is only 29 per cent, which is the lowest among the provinces and below the national average of 36 per cent.

While people tend to work less as they get older — due to retirement, illness, injury or a variety of other factors — that's less true in Alberta than the rest of the country.

"We have a noticeably higher employment rate among those 55 and over," Tombe said.

Click on this interactive graph to see Alberta's unemployment rate, employment rate, and employment rate for people aged 55 and over as compared to other provinces, as of October:

The relatively high employment rate makes it easier for Alberta to ride out economic downturns than other provinces, Tombe said, as more people are paying taxes while fewer are relying on pensions, social assistance and other income supports.

Tombe said Newfoundland provides "a very good counter-example," in that it has both the highest unemployment rate and the lowest employment rate, in addition to the oldest population of all provinces.

"They were not at all well placed to weather the low oil price shock and we're seeing now that Newfoundland is in an unbelievably difficult situation," he said.

After two straight years of recession, several major banks have recently predicted that Alberta's economy will return to growth in 2017.

In a September report, TD forecasted that Alberta would lead all provinces in GDP growth in 2017 and 2018.

That same report predicted Newfoundland's economy would continue to shrink next year, before returning to modest growth in 2018.