Worker shortage looms again: Hicks on Biz column originally published in Edmonton Sun, April 7, 2012
Remember the bumper sticker from the ‘80s, “Please God, let there be another oil boom. I promise not to piss it all away the next time.”
That, of course, was two booms ago.
Now we are on the cusp, the very beginning of the third.
We seem to be getting smarter at this, but not much.
All the corporate talk at the downtown Ricky’s Grill in the mornings, at the Hardware Grill at lunch, is about the impending labour shortage.
“Workforce, workforce, workforce,” says Edmonton Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Martin Salloum. “That’s all our members are talking about.”
Driven by the global need for our clean oil, Northern Alberta is relentlessly growing. New oil extraction plants come on stream nearly every month in the oilsands. Conventional oil wells are resurrected thanks to new technology. Natural gas is readying for an inevitable recovery once it can be shipped to Asia and replaces coal in electricity generation.
Brains and brawn are needed for all the above. Geologists to find the energy, engineers to design the infrastructure, skilled workers to build the energy industry infrastructure as Alberta replaces Texas as the energy super-power of North America.
Technicians and technologists are needed to run the industrial complexes once built. Managers are needed to oversee the growing workforce, accountants to issue their paycheques.
Workers bring families. Children need teachers. Hospitals need nurses and so spreads the ripple effect.
Despite the steady march of job-replacing automation and technology , there’s still a pressing need for more human beings to make intelligent decisions and do the work.
And let’s not forget a pile of grey-haired tradespeople now packing it in and heading to Phoenix for the winters.
Northern Alberta has a severe people shortage.
The Rest of Canada is not the same recruiting ground it used to be. Even in the provinces with high unemployment, skilled tradesmen are in demand. Fort McMurray’s claim as Newfoundland’s second-biggest city may soon be past.
Recruiting from overseas seems works for the restaurant and coffee shop sector, but is fraught with language, safety and work-quality issues when it comes to skilled labour.
In England, Ireland and the USA, countries like ours but with high unemployment, the skilled trades workers still don’t want to come. “We were at a trade-recruiting fair in Ireland,” says an executive with an Edmonton construction company. “About 8,000 came through. We interviewed 250, and offered jobs to 34. But only nine accepted.
“They didn’t want to wait three months for a Canadian work visa, when Australia is aggressively recruiting for the same skills and can get them working within a few weeks. Plus, Northern Alberta is perceived as one big frozen ice cube. They’d rather sit and stare at the wall than work and be cold.”
Everybody knew this boom, even in the midst of the 2008/09 crash, was coming. Everybody knew the oilsands might take a breather, but renewed expansion would happen.
So what happened to strategic planning? From 2008 to 2011, during the economic down-turn, why weren’t trades training programs at schools like NAIT being ramped up in preparation for the boom now starting? Shouldn’t we have a bumper crop of welders getting their tickets right about now?
We should be so far-sighted!
After Peter Lougheed’s watch, successive provincial governments have been lousy long-term planners. One can’t deny that the Ed Stelmach government was punched in the gut by the revenue drop from the economic slow-down starting in 2008. There was no money, I’m sure the cabinet ministers of the day would argue.
But when cash should have been poured into training programs – and yes, there were high-school graduates available — colleges had 0% budget increases in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In Alison Redford’s pre-election 2012/12 budget, education has a sparkling 2% increase.
It’s tough for a school like NAIT to expand its classroom space, expand its welders’ courses and hire more teachers on 0% budget increases. For reasons one can only speculate about, NAIT administrators declined to be interviewed on this subject.
But no interview was needed. Statistics kept by the provincial Trade Secrets agency show a steady decline in new trade apprentices from 23,956 in 2006 to 15,199 in 2010, the most recent year for which the numbers are available.
Apprentice welder numbers went into a death spiral, from 9,342 in 2006 to 5,925 in 2009, recovering to 7,583 in 2010. Despite today’s dire need, the number of home-grown welders grew by 2% from 2005 to 2010!
Whoever takes power after this election, be it Progressive Conservative or Wildrose, has to be far more pro-active and strategic on the labour shortage front.
It’s not just about opening up more spots in the schools to produce the tradespeople and professionals that are in serious demand.
It’s an entire strategy, about being competitive overseas for qualified workers, hiring and retaining teachers, speeding up foreign worker visas on the federal level, working hand-in-glove with industry, orienting high schools to trade curriculums, coordinating the timing of industrial mega-projects with public capital works to smooth out the boom-bust cycle.
In other words, we need political intelligence of the highest order if we’re not to shoot ourselves in the job-planning foot …, as we’ve done with such depressing predictability over the past two decades.