There are nearly 44K unfilled jobs in Alberta. So what's going on?

Is there a chronic mismatch between perceived skills and what employers need? Janet Lane and Christopher Rastrick from Canada West Foundation say their research suggests both businesses and people looking for work could benefit from a different way to advertise jobs.

Matching someones competency to a job, not just credentials, could benefit employers and job seekers

Alberta's unemployment rate is currently around 8.8 per cent, but there are also 44,000 unfilled positions in the province. (CBC)

This story was originally published on Feb. 28, 2017

In a difficult economic environment, it seems likely that many Albertans would be scrambling to take any kind of work — and that this would reduce the number of available jobs.

But while many Albertans are accepting jobs that were not on their radar two years ago, surprisingly, there are still 44,000 unfilled positions in the province. Something doesn't match up.

One possible solution to persistent job vacancies is to give employers a better way to advertise the specific kinds of skills they are looking for, and give people who are looking for work a better way to lay out their specific skills for prospective employers.

Where the jobs are

Alberta's unemployment rate is 8.8 per cent, and those job vacancies are clustered in a few sectors.

Even during this downturn, hotels and restaurants are having a particularly hard time finding workers. There's a five per cent vacancy rate in the accommodation and food services sector. Similar trends can be found in the information, cultural, finance and insurance industries.

On one hand, geographic disparities are in play.

In some cases, there are not enough qualified workers living in a particular area to fill the available jobs. Hotels and service businesses in Banff know this all too well. There are also discrepancies in what employers are willing to pay and what people want to be paid to do some jobs.

There is a five per cent vacancy rate in the accommodation and food services sector in the province. (Shutterstock)

However, the problem is not simply geography and compensation.

There are some jobs that have been chronically hard to fill. The reasons why are far from simple. Our research suggests that could be because there is a chronic mismatch between what are assumed to be the skills of the labour force and the skills Alberta's employers say they are looking for.

If jobs have been persistently hard to fill, we should change the way we go about trying to fill them.

Credentials vs. competency

When most employers advertise a job, they do so by asking potential employees for a particular credential, like a degree or certificate. The problem is that a credential only identifies what a person has been taught or trained to do.

Competencies, on the other hand, are what a person actually knows, understands and can do.

Knowing what a prospective worker can really do, how well they can do it and what skills they may need to brush up on, could be a huge benefit to employers. Here's how.

When an employer is looking at a resume, they could see that a machine tool operator has one kind of credential, and a home inspector has a different kind of credential. But they may not see is that both people have competencies in common — they both inspect materials, equipment and structures.

A construction worker walks atop a wood frame for a building.
Shifting towards a competency-based approach to hiring could mean a candidate who may not have the specific credentials required, but has the best competencies, could be offered the job. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

A competency-based approach would make that kind of common ground more obvious. And it could mean that the person who may not have exactly the right credential, but does have the best competencies, could be offered the job.

If employers shifted toward a competency-based approach to hiring, it would also circumvent the problem of hiring over-qualified workers and then under-utilizing them. This is inefficient for workers, employers and the economy at large, and ultimately leads to the decline of workers' skills through their professional lives.

For job-seekers, knowing what competencies employers are specifically looking for, and at what level, then comparing that information to the competencies they have, would also be invaluable information. What's more, it would help people to make good education and training decisions.

It's an employment win-win.

We are not alone

Having the right number of workers is just the starting point to a robust labour force. Ensuring that Alberta's workforce matches the needs of employers is crucial.The rest of the world is increasingly moving towards a competency-based approach to workforce development and deployment.

With a growing population, above average unemployment and some hard-to-fill jobs, now would be a good time for Alberta to get on board.


Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre and co-author of Matchup: A Case for Pan-Canadian Competency Frameworks.

Christopher Rastrick is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation.