Alberta's job market holding up, despite oil bust

April's jobs report came out this morning, and Alberta was the standout, but not in a way you'd expect. The province picked up more than 12,000 jobs as Canada overall shed nearly 20,000. What gives?

But employment isn't quite as strong as the numbers seem to show

There are fewer oil jobs in Alberta, but people aren't giving up on the job market. (Norm Betts/Bloomberg News)

For months now, economists have expected Alberta's job market to roll over. There have been multiple public announcements of large job losses, and many more layoffs that have happened under the radar, heard about from friends and family.

You can sit on your couch and collect EI, or you can cobble together bits and pieces of contract work.— Todd Hirsch, ATB Financial

But over the past six Statistics Canada jobs reports, from November to April, Alberta has lost a substantial number of jobs in only one of those months. In February, 14,000 jobs were lost, offsetting a gain of 14,000 in January. The province has actually added more than 10,000 jobs in the nearly six months since the bottom fell out of the oil market.

So what gives?

Part of the answer lies beneath the headline. Last month, Alberta added 12,500 jobs, but they were all part time; the province shed 7,600 full-time positions and added 20,000 part-time jobs.

"One of the questions you have to ask yourself is whether some of the workers that are getting laid off are finding employment, but they're finding it in temporary part-time positions," said Craig Alexander, chief economist at the TD Bank.

There have been substantial job losses in the oil business that have been offset by job creation in the service sector.

The message from the job reports is that, so far, there is some slack in the job market, although maybe not in the highest-paying jobs. And that Albertans are willing to take those lower-quality jobs in order to keep working.

That doesn't surprise Todd Hirsch, chief economist of ATB Financial. He says the other interesting numbers in the April report are in the self-employment numbers and the scientific, professional and technical services sector — both of which added jobs.

​"It's impossible to say, given the way Statistics Canada slices and dices the numbers, but the smoking gun points to a resurgence of the consultant," said Hirsch.

"You can sit on your couch and collect EI, or you can cobble together bits and pieces of contract work as a consultant and try to get by with that. And hang on until the market comes back." 


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