OPINION | Calgary used to be where the jobs were … but not anymore
What Doug (and Mary, and Jason) don't understand about remote work
This column is an opinion from Dave Robertson, a meeting facilitator and writer in Calgary.
Remember Calgary's vision statement: Great place to make a living, great place to make a life? Soon it could read, "They say Calgary's a great place to make a living, but I'll just hop on Zoom from my cottage in Vernon instead."
In 2017, when personal interaction was still a thing, I went to a client meeting with a local agency boss. After driving across town, we sat in an empty conference room and waited for the meeting to start. Then our clients all popped up on the giant screen — they'd dialled in from home. Back in the car, the boss said, "I guess we won't make that mistake again."
Fast forward to 2020 and everyone's working remotely.
Hipster coder-designers are taking their laptops to Tulum, Mexico. Bermuda, Barbados and Estonia are offering extended tourism visas to remote workers. Cities like Tulsa, Okla., and Savannah, Ga., are even paying remote workers to become residents.
Closer to home, old colleagues from Calgary technology and design firms are renting temporary winter places in Kimberley and Comox to "test the fit." I don't think they're coming back.
Writing on the wall
Alberta's economic brain trust has yet to see the writing on the wall.
In September, when Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer announced that Alberta is "going to beat provinces like Ontario and B.C. to the punch" in the tech and innovation space, it showed just how naive the UCP is about the borderless nature of work today. Of course, this is a government still discovering the possibilities of economic diversification.
Schweitzer isn't alone. Calgary Economic Development (CED) knows how badly we need to attract talent. Yet, at last week's sobering Economic Outlook 2021, CED president Mary Moran doubled down on her hope that tech businesses will somehow fill Calgary's vacant office space.
I sure hope CED wasn't courting Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify. It moved to a permanent work-from-home model last May.
What leaders like Doug and Mary (and Jason Kenney and others) are missing is how remote work is changing everything.
As the pandemic continues, companies are becoming virtual entities floating around in the cloud, and their cleverest workers are realizing they don't have to live near their employers. With a little negotiation, they can pick any place they want.
Surely, we still have advantages.
There's Calgary, a city globally ranked for its livability (and facing crippling budget cuts). We have easy access to an abundance of beautiful, natural space (now with fewer parks and more coal mines). There's our public health care system (that UCP members want to privatize). And the Kenney government is all about high tech now (but can't admit the AHS tracing tool isn't as good as "Trudeau's app").
Meanwhile, on our left coast, B.C. Premier John Horgan is creating a sort of workers' paradise.
His economic recovery plan will fund the fight against COVID-19, provide plentiful and inexpensive child care, and make improvements to B.C. communities. It even includes targeted tax incentives for employers who actually hire more workers.
Ironically, he can do this thanks to an economy that the Conference Board of Canada says is the best among Canadian provinces.
What if more and more skilled Calgarians, frustrated by our failing economy and ridiculous levels of partisanship, started moving to B.C.?
Worse yet, what if they use remote work to hang on to their jobs here in Calgary? Then Alberta takes a double hit — not only do we lose their skills, but because provincial taxes are based on residency, their tax dollars leave, too.
Trust me — we really can't afford to lose these people.
An uphill battle
It was hard enough getting them here in the first place. Back in my agency days, I recruited research and design talent from other Canadian cities, because we didn't have (and still don't have) enough people with skills in things like user experience and design research.
Back then, it was an uphill battle. Moving to Cowtown was simply unthinkable for many ambitious, talented people from Vancouver or Toronto.
But right now in the United States, between 14- and 23-million skilled workers are planning to relocate to less expensive cities. If this were to happen in Canada, Calgary's lower cost of living and an accelerating drop in house prices could be very attractive. It's a rare opportunity and we'd better not blow it.
Sure, tech incubators and virtual trade missions are still important, but CED should refactor its economic strategy to retain and attract remote workers. They may work for companies here or in other parts of the world, but they will choose Calgary as "a great place to make a life" if we protect and enhance the things that make our city livable, safe and prosperous.
CED can get ahead of the curve by finding out why skilled workers are choosing to leave Calgary and work remotely. I'm sure they'll say they're worried about the livability of our city, or about cuts to our health care and education systems.
But I think they'll also tell us that they're exhausted by Alberta's political climate with its increasing levels of partisan noise and a growing sense of chaos. They're just looking for some peace and quiet.
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