'Check your ego': How to get a job in Alberta's recession

For years, Calgary was a great place to go if you needed a job. It had the highest wages in the country, especially for oilpatch jobs, but that has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for the city more than two years into a weak job market.

High expectations for job seekers remain 2 years into the downturn

Finding a job in the downturn requires a willingness to 'check your ego,' career counsellors say. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

Originally published Feb. 10.

For years, Calgary was a great place to go if you needed a job. It had the highest wages in the country — especially for oilpatch workers — and the buoyant job market helped draw more than 300,000 people to the city over the past 10 years.

That great job market was a blessing, but has a downside, in that career counsellors and headhunters are finding that job expectations remain too high, more than two years into a weak labour market.

Put your ego in check, that's what I'm saying to everybody, we've all had to put our egos in check.- Sharlene Massie, About Staffing

"We actually had an IT [information technology] guy two weeks ago," said Sharlene Massie the owner of About Staffing, describing a candidate for an open job. "It was a good job, $90,000 a year. He's not working now, so he's making nothing. He went to the first interview, he was supposed to go back for the second interview, and he said, the company was too small, he was going to wait for a bigger company to hire him."

Massie has found this trend to be particularly frustrating. She said that everyone in the city, including her, has had to adjust their expectations.

"Put your ego in check, that's what I'm saying to everybody. We've all had to put our egos in check."

Shift in jobs being created in Alberta

The types of jobs available in Alberta are changing. There's less work in oil and gas, obviously, but also fewer professional positions and technical and finance jobs. Meanwhile, more retail and food services jobs are available, and there's lots of hiring in education, health and public administration.

Still, in December the unemployment rate remained above 10 per cent.

Massie has found that labourers are keen to take any work, but mid-level employees remain picky.

"The companies are not hiring back at the same price that they had these people before. They're going in offering less."

Loss of status can be painful

Career counsellors in Calgary have seen the same problem: People who are used to well-paying jobs are often advised to take a survival job, working retail, for example, but there is a real reluctance to do so.

"They don't want to lose status or the perception of the loss of status, which is oftentimes associated with pay or job title," said Avra Davidoff, a psychologist with Calgary Career Counselling. "So sometimes it's helping an individual understand that you can gain status through other ways, it's not always about the dollar sign."

It is easy to judge, but the idea of success being connected to money or your job is ingrained in society, probably more so in cities where incomes are high and people work a lot of hours, as Calgarians did during the boom years.

"It's the idea that we need to have a certain job title or pay in order to be successful, or well-regarded," said Davidoff. "And it's hard for people to detach themselves from that view."

Does more money equal more happiness?

There are also practical considerations at play. It can be harder to job hunt or network when you are at work every day, even though it's usually easier to find work when you already have a job. There's also the possibility that mid-level workers want a career more than a job.

Some worry that a survival job might stall the advance of a career, and that it might be better to take some classes or do some volunteering, said David Dick, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, who specializes in the philosophy of money.

Or the problem may be as simple as workers looking for more money.

Dick said that research has shown that $75,000 US a year is the household income at which people no longer feel the emotional stress of not having enough money. However, as a society, we tend to rate our lives as happier the more money that we have.

"There's a very tight correlation up to $160,000 a year between income and life satisfaction. At $110,000 a year, people rate their lives as not going as well as at $130,000 a year," said Dick.

Dick said he found the reluctance to take survival jobs is rooted in optimism. Calgarians are expecting that the city will come back from this. 

But they may have some time to wait.

"I think the word is stable, said Massie. "There's not a turnaround yet."