'No trust in an actual recovery': Edmonton employment numbers don't tell whole story

While employment numbers paint a rosier picture of the Alberta economy, they don’t reflect the reality many are experiencing on the ground, employment experts and industry leaders say.

‘We’ve got to be cautious,’ Statistics Canada economist says about interpreting data

Many oil workers have lost their trust in the industry's recovery and are considering different careers, say staff at Edmonton's Bredin Centre for Learning. (Norm Betts/Bloomberg News)

Taking the Pulse is a series from CBC News examining how Albertans are coping with today's economic conditions.

While employment numbers are painting a rosier picture of the Alberta economy, they don't reflect the reality many are experiencing on the ground, employment experts and industry leaders say.

"There's no trust in an actual recovery," said Ioana Bucsa, ​career services manager at Bredin Centre for Learning in Edmonton.

Laid-off workers worried about their future in the oil industry are taking steps to transition into other careers, she said.

"These types of clients don't have the trust in the industry anymore, so they're looking at alternatives, or having back up plans in case it doesn't happen." 

That uncertainty can also be felt among Alberta's small business owners, said Amber Ruddy, director of the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

Around a quarter of Alberta business owners who participated in CFIB's November survey said they were struggling, Ruddy said.

"It's not typical to see that kind of angst and frustration among business owners."

Career change 

The Bredin Centre for Learning hasn't seen an increase in clients in 2018, but it is helping more workers in the oil and gas sector, said employment services manager Nova Andrews.

"A lot of these workers were very used to working for six months, being laid off, taking the summer to do their thing, and coming back to work again," Andrews said.

"That cycle has definitely shifted. When they realized there was nothing to go back to, they started trickling in."

They have to make some major changes and decisions as to how they approach their career and their job search.- Ioana Bucsa, Bredin Learning Centre 

Staff at the centre help job seekers identify transferable skills, write resumés and prepare for interviews. 

There are employment opportunities in Edmonton, Bucsa said, but they are not as lucrative as what oil workers are used to.

"Now they have to make some major changes and decisions as to how they approach their career and their job search."

Numbers need context 

While a Statistics Canada labour force survey reported 24,000 jobs were added to the Alberta economy in November, the numbers don't show the whole picture, Bucsa said.

"November was definitely a more positive month than October," she said. "Would I say significantly higher? No." 

Jobs added in the retail sector in November for the holiday period may not be there in January, she added. 

The numbers are based on a survey of 5,700 Alberta households, and could be off by as much as 10,000, Statistics Canada economist Bernard Léveillé said. 

"Since it's not a census, we cannot say for sure that there is exactly that amount of people employed in the province," Léveillé said.

Statistics are a snapshot in time, and need to be understood in context, he added. 

"We would prefer people to look at trends, long-term trends, than month-to-month variations" Léveillé said. "So that you can really see in what shape the labour market is."

From November 2017 to November 2018, the workforce increased by 59,000 jobs. 

The unemployment rate in Edmonton was 6.2 per cent last month while averaging 7.2 per cent over the last year. 

The unemployment rate in Alberta reached 8.8 per cent in January 2017, eventually dropping to 6.9 per cent in November 2018. (Statistics Canada)

'Bad business cycle'

The data from Statistics Canada doesn't match up with the experience of small business owners in the province, Ruddy said.

In Alberta, one in five small business owners who took part in the CFIB's November survey said they were expecting to cut back on full-time staff. 

One in 10 said they were planning on adding personnel. 

That simply means a bad business cycle. It's hard to get customers through the door.-Amber Ruddy, Canadian Federation of Independent Business 

Alberta business owners, along with those in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, were the least optimistic in the country, Ruddy said.

"More than half are saying they're having insufficient demand for their products and services," she explained. "That simply means a bad business cycle. It's hard to get customers through the door."

Those sentiments are linked to uncertainty in the oil sector, but are also influenced by the province's policies, such as the minimum wage increase and the carbon tax, said Ruddy.

"It makes a bad situation worse."

About 1,300 people gathered in Drayton Valley, Alta., in early December to urge the provincial and federal governments to get pipeline projects moving. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Stability in construction

The construction industry in Edmonton has been stable over the last two years, said John McNicoll, executive director of the Edmonton Construction Association. 

He estimates about 15 per cent of Edmonton's population is employed in construction. 

Layoffs in the residential construction sector are offset by bigger companies that are seeing an opportunity to expand, he said. 

"Some companies have definitely laid off people in the slow down," McNicoll said. 

"There are others who have said, 'Wow, look at that person who's available. We've never had the opportunity to hire someone like that, let's go get them.'" 

Large infrastructure projects initiated years ago are still generating employment, he explained. 

"Those decisions were made four or five years ago, for Rogers Place or Stantec Tower," McNicoll said. "It tends to stabilize the economy."

Alberta's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to increase by 2.2 per cent in 2019, according to ATB Financial's economic outlook.

That growth is a good sign for the construction industry, McNicoll said. 

"The future of Edmonton will be strong. There's no need for despair."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca