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Grande Prairie region braces for post-COVID shortage of skilled labour

Attracting skilled workers to the northern Alberta region has always been a challenge. But with expected population growth and a rebounding economy expected, the area is looking at strategies to entice workers to the area and keep them there

Study says nurses, engineers, financial planners and forklift drivers in short supply

An expected population growth plus post-pandemic return to economic normalcy has raised concerns that skilled labour gaps will create future challenges. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Despite the economic toll taken by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grande Prairie region is facing a shortage of skilled workers, according to a new labour market survey. 

A major study led by the Grande Prairie & District Chamber of Commerce aimed to pinpoint sought-after job skills and qualifications and begin planning how to attract the right kind of workers — and encourage them to stay.

According to the study, the area's population is expected to grow by eight per cent in the next five years. That growth, combined with an expected post-pandemic return to normalcy, has chamber board chair Larry Gibson worried that skilled labour gaps will create future challenges for the region's industries.

"It's definitely a concern," he said. "If our industries can't attract and retain skilled labour into the area, then they're not successful and they may not keep shop in the area or promote the area to others."

Attracting people to the Grande Prairie region in northwestern Alberta has "always been a challenge." (Marilyn Grubb/Chipabirdee Images)

Topping the list of sought-after qualifications were licensed practical nurses, professional engineers, certified forklift operators and certified financial planners. High-demand skills identified by the study included communication, driving, customer service, sales and mechanics.

"Attraction has always been a challenge," Gibson said.

"Once we end up getting them here, we do end up retaining quite a few people — there's always those stories of, 'I came here for two years and 25 years later I'm still here.'"

Other findings from the study include:

  • 18,159 jobs in the area were posted between March 2019 to March 2020
  • Arts, culture and entertainment are fast-growing sectors
  • The region has more self-employed entrepreneurs compared to Alberta as a whole
  • Women, youth and Indigenous persons have the largest employment gaps
  • Income levels are higher compared to the rest of the province

One aim of the study was to get hard data about the gaps in the region's workforce, said Rebecca Leigh, Grande Prairie's manager of economic development. Statistics Canada lumps in Grande Prairie and surrounding areas with all of the economic regions in western Alberta. 

The study started before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, but Leigh said the research team collected data during the pandemic as well.

According to the report, the shortages cut across all sectors of the economy, from construction and trades to agriculture, communications and science. 

"Grande Prairie is fairly fortunate in that we have a diversified economy," Leigh said. "That diversity creates a bit of stability and more growth opportunities, so we're not as drastically impacted by the pandemic as if we were really highly concentrated in one industry or a small handful."

Topping the list of sought-after qualifications were licensed practical nurses, professional engineers, certified forklift operators and certified financial planners. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Labour shortages have been a perennial difficulty in the region, said County of Grande Prairie Reeve Leanne Beaupre.

She expects that once the economy rebounds, workforce gaps will continue to be a challenge for area industries.

"A lot of it is the type of work required in the area and lack of knowledge of the area itself," Beaupre said.

"For [people living in cities], when they're looking at the area, they see this as being a very rural and remote area without a lot of opportunities or quality of life opportunities."

Beaupre said that this characterization overlooks the many attractions of the region, such as job opportunities, education and a thriving arts and culture scene that includes festivals and the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.

"Quality of life is next to perfect in our area," she said.

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