'It's been tough': Edmonton's job market limps into new year

Nearly 69,000 Edmontonians were unemployed in December. 

'I'm beginning to see now that the statistics ring true so it's been tough'

Brian Wolfe braved the cold of a January cold snap in an effort to find full-time work. (Kateao NehuaJackson-Arcand/Facebook)

Brian Wolfe was so desperate for a job he took to the streets with a sign reading, "Ready to work."

For six hours on Jan. 13, the out-of-work welder stood on the corner of a busy Edmonton intersection at -30 C, pleading for someone — anyone — to give him a job.

Wolfe, 49, had been without steady work for nine months.

"I applied to hundreds of places and there was no response," said Wolfe, who had supported his family with a welding torch for 15 years. 

"My welding tickets ran out, and the way things fell there wasn't any money to renew the tickets. And there wasn't any steady work to get the money to renew the tickets." 

By nightfall, Wolfe had hundreds of job offers and is set to start a job doing scaffolding work. 

He said he knows he's one of the lucky ones. Bruised by a recession, Edmonton's job market is limping into the new year.  

That's probably been the toughest thing is seeing how little is out there.- Daniel Stamhuis

Edmonton ended 2019 with a jobless rate of eight per cent, the highest in the country and the highest monthly rate recorded in the city for the year, an increase from a rate of 6.3 recorded in December 2018. 

Nearly 69,000 Edmontonians were unemployed in December. 

Daniel Stamhuis is one of them. When his employer sent out a notice last month that layoffs were imminent, Stamhuis assumed he was living on borrowed time. 

He has been applying for jobs for weeks but no one has offered him work.

"I've never been laid off before in my life," said Stamhuis, 32. "I'm beginning to see now that the statistics ring true. So it's been tough." 

Stamhuis had been a water meter reader for Epcor for four years. Most of that time, he worked full-time hours but was a temporary employee. He had been made permanent in April.

"At my age, I still have lots left in the tank," he said. "But I want something with stability, and I thought I had that. So I'm very apprehensive about applying for temporary positions.

"That's probably been the toughest thing, is seeing how little is out there."

Bucking the trend

Less reliant on the energy sector than other Alberta cities, the provincial capital has been surprisingly resilient during the ongoing downturn. But that seems to be changing.

Growth in Edmonton's real gross domestic product (GDP) hovered around 0.5 per cent in 2019, the lowest it's been since 2015, soon after oil prices started to plunge.

Full-time employment has been declining year over year since last September, weakening growth in average weekly wages.

The figures show Edmonton is lagging behind other parts of Alberta, and elsewhere in Canada.

Alberta lost roughly 1,000 positions in December as the provincial unemployment rate ticked down from 7.2 to 7 per cent. 

In contrast, the Canadian job market bounced back in December to post a gain of 35,200 jobs and reverse some losses posted in the previous month, which saw the biggest monthly loss since the 2008 financial crisis. 

We were insulated at that time and now it's our turn to get hit.- Raja Bajwa

"We seem to be bucking the provincial trend and the national trend," said Raja Bajwa, president of the Economics Society of Northern Alberta and a professor of macroeconomics at NorQuest College.

"Hopefully it doesn't continue into 2020 and we see some bounce-back, but it might be going on for a little while."

Edmonton's labour market has been showing signs of stress for some time, Bajwa said.

Growth has been stagnant, oil prices remain volatile, but more than anything Edmonton has been hit by the provincial budget, Bajwa said. 

"It was a pretty quick hit in terms of the impact," Bajwa said. "There is going to be an adjustment. Hopefully we recover quickly."

The city's workforce is dominated by government, public sector and non-profit employers who have been spooked by spending cuts introduced by Premier Jason Kenney's government, Bajwa said. 

"I think a lot of it has to do with the provincial budget that came out in October," he said. "It was a pretty quick hit in terms of the impact, whether municipal governments or some of the non-profits that rely on provincial funding. And as a result, a lot of the places that were looking to hire full time or had full-time positions coming to end, those didn't get extended. We've also seen a lot of major projects come to an end in town, so a lot of those construction jobs have moved on as well."

Post-budget, Edmonton has slipped behind Calgary, which ended 2019 with an unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent, Bajwa said.

"Back in 2017, Calgary was three per cent higher than us with their unemployment and now it's sort of flipped," Bajwa said. 

"We were insulated at that time and now it's our turn to get hit." 

Charlene Stowe says the level of competition in Edmonton's job market has become "insane." (Travis McEwan/CBC)

'Pretty darn scary'

Charlene Stowe said the level of competition in Edmonton's job market has become "insane." 

Stowe worked in auto body shops for 10 years but was laid off and can't find a job. 

She most recently applied to work as a labourer in Edmonton. She said the position had more than 3,800 online applicants. 

"It's hard," she said. "I've never been unemployed this long. Going on five months, it's starting to get pretty darn scary. 

"My savings are dwindling down to nothing. EI certainly doesn't give you a whole lot, and when you apply for jobs you're competing against not just hundreds but thousands." 

You have more young people that are looking for work, and there are not more jobs for them.- Bertand Leveille

Young people, especially young men, have been among the hardest hit by the employment slump, said Bertrand Leveille, an economist with Stats Canada.

The unemployment rate for Albertans aged 15 to 24 for the year increased 3.9 percentage points, to 15 per cent. The rate in Edmonton now hovers around 17 per cent, up from 9.2 per cent in December of 2018.

"We're seeing an increase in employment for young females but it declined for young males, a significant decline, which ends up giving us a pretty flat employment level for young people," Leveille said. 

"You have more young people that are looking for work, and there are not more jobs for them."

Modest growth, reason to hope

It's not all bad news, according to the latest quarterly report from the city. 

While labour force growth outpaced the region's employment gains, Edmonton gained 3,100 positions in December, with most of the growth coming from the trades, finance, insurance, real estate and food services.

For 2019 as a whole, employment growth in Edmonton increased by 1.1 per cent from the year before, and average weekly wages for 2019 were almost two per cent higher. 

The city expects employment in Edmonton to grow by a modest one per cent in 2020. 

"The unemployment rate is forecast to decline, though the rate is unlikely to move much lower than the seven to 7.5 per cent range," according to the latest quarterly outlook from the city.

After being out of work for two years, house painter Aaron Deneiko, 39, is feeling more positive about this prospects.

Deneiko sought some professional advice and now plans to return to warehouse work. 

He was a house painter for 15 years before the work dried up. 

"The economy dropped," he said. "Lots of places were downsizing staff.

"Four months ago I was feeling pretty down about finding a job. I'm actually pretty positive right now, and feel like I will be able to accomplish this goal soon."

With files from Nola Keeler and Travis McEwan


Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca


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