'It's still not what it used to be': Alberta economy rebounds but unemployment remains sticky

Retail sales in Alberta continue to grow, according to Statistics Canada, while fewer people are collecting Employment Insurance benefits, but there's still no sign the province's sticky unemployment rate will come down any time soon.

Analysts see numerous positive signs in province's economic indicators, with one notable exception

Pedro Antunes is executive director of economic outlook and analysis and deputy chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada. (CBC)

Retail sales continue to climb in Alberta while EI payouts continue to decline but the province's unemployment rate remains notably higher than the national average.

"Right now, the Alberta economy … even though it's rebounding, it's still not what it used to be," said Pedro Antunes, deputy chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada.

"It's certainly not the kind of economy that Albertans have come to enjoy in the past decade or so."

Data released Thursday shows retail trade in the province grew by 0.3 per cent in September, on a seasonally adjusted basis.

That's the fourth increase in the past sixth months.

Motor vehicles helped drive the growth, Statistics Canada noted, with sales up 13.5 per cent over last year.

New car dealers, in particular, saw even stronger growth, with sales up 16 per cent compared to September 2016.

Gasoline sales were also up 10 per cent, while sales of building materials and supplies grew 9.2 per cent.

Other retail industries saw more modest growth, including electronics and appliances (5.9 per cent), food and beverage (2.1 per cent) and home furnishings (1.7 per cent).

EI payouts on the decline

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada also reported Thursday that fewer Albertans are receiving Employment Insurance benefits.

A total of 63,000 people received regular EI payments in September, down 5.2 per cent from August and 34.7 per cent from a year earlier.

EI recipients as a share of the total labour force also declined to 2.5 per cent, bringing it below the national level for the first time in nearly two years.

The lower number of EI beneficiaries does not necessarily mean more people are finding work, however.

People who remain unemployed but have simply had their EI benefits run out, for example, are included in the declining numbers.

"In general, changes in the number of beneficiaries can reflect a number of different circumstances, including people becoming beneficiaries, those going back to work, those exhausting their regular benefits, and those no longer receiving benefits for other reasons," Statistics Canada said in a release.

Unemployment not falling as fast

Alberta's unemployment rate has also been declining, but at a slower pace.

And at 7.8 per cent, it remains significantly above the national average of 6.2 per cent.

Antunes noted Alberta has added about 20,000 jobs so far this year but said it will take some time for employment levels to return to anything near the pre-recession levels.

"The Alberta economy is obviously still very dependent on the energy sector and, without oil prices getting back into those ranges that we might have seen in the past, I think it does mean a slower growth," he said.

Most of the job growth in 2017 has come in the private sector, said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, but the jobs that are being created aren't necessarily the same jobs that used to exist, particularly in oil and gas and related industries.

"That's hit young men — certainly young men with lower levels of education, on average — particularly hard," Tombe said.

"And so even though the aggregate economy may be seeing growth, that's certainly not to deny that there's lots of areas where people won't be seeing it."

Alberta to lead in GDP growth in 2017

Two reports put out this week say Alberta will lead the country in GDP growth this year but neither foresees a sudden decline in the province's unemployment rate in the near future.

ATB Financial projects Alberta's economy will grow by 3.9 per cent in 2017 and another 2.7 per cent in 2018, with unemployment averaging 7.3 per cent next year.

The Conference Board of Canada, meanwhile, projects Alberta's real GDP growth this year at 6.7 per cent and 2.1 per cent in 2018, with next year's unemployment rate hovering around eight per cent.

The GDP growth comes after two years of economic contraction in the province and, even if Alberta hits the Conference Board's high-end projection for this year, Tombe said that still wouldn't bring the GDP back to its 2014 level.

It would take about 7.8 per cent growth to reach that mark, he said.

He also noted that Alberta's GDP, per person, remained the highest of all provinces even at its lowest point during the latest oil-price crash.

"We're substantially better off than every other province, even at the bottom of our recession," Tombe said.

With files from CBC Calgary News at 6 and Alberta At Noon