As thousands of oilpatch jobs vanished almost three years ago, Calgary’s unemployment rate soared to 10.3 per cent, highest among the country’s largest cities.The rate was far lower in the Edmonton area, sitting at seven per cent in November 2016, underscoring some of the structural differences between the economies of the province’s largest cities.A new Statistics Canada labour report issued Friday shows the gap between Calgary and Edmonton has now reversed.In July, Calgary’s unemployment rate dipped slightly to 6.9 per cent, and has dropped almost a full percentage point in the past 12 months. In Edmonton, the number in July rose to 7.5 per cent, up a point in the past year.Right across Alberta, 14,300 jobs disappeared last month — affecting full-time work, hitting hardest at positions in the accommodations industry, as well as the natural resources sector.Alberta’s overall unemployment rate rose to seven per cent in July, up from 6.6 per cent.
Edmonton’s unemployment rate is now higher than Calgary’s.
One month does not make a long-term trend — provincial job numbers had improved in June with 10,000 new positions — but economists say it appears the employment situation has changed between the two cities.“For the longest time, Calgary has had a much tougher situation than Edmonton. We were harder hit in the recession, the recovery was much slower, we had a period of time through 2018 where there was basically no recovery whatsoever,” said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe.“But now it’s totally flipped. It looks like in 2019, Edmonton has systemically been experiencing higher levels of unemployment, where Calgary has been improving.”City of Edmonton chief economist John Rose noted the capital region lost more than 5,000 jobs between June and July, and has endured a bumpy 2019.Job gains in areas such as trade and information were offset by fewer positions in energy, accommodation and food services.
Trades showed some gains in the latest report, but were offset by losses in other industries, such as food service.
Sean Kilpatrick /
THE CANADIAN PRESS
“Given what’s been going on in the rest of the province, the numbers for Calgary look very robust and resilient indeed. Unfortunately here in Edmonton we saw a significant loss in jobs,” Rose said.“Calgary, for most of the past couple of years, was stuck at relatively high employment rates and Edmonton was below you, but that position has reversed.”Analysts are hesitant to say precisely why the picture has changed this year, but note the oil and gas sector is a key driver of employment and economic growth in both centres and across the province.ATB Financial director of research Rob Roach noted Calgary has more corporate head office jobs than the Edmonton region, while the capital has more processing and oilfield services activity, and a much larger public-service sector.Rose pointed out public sector jobs make up about 27 per cent of employment in the region, and the capital has seen a significant reduction in educational services jobs.“We didn’t take the hit that Calgary did (during the recession) or most of the other communities in Alberta, for that matter, simply because we’ve got this large public sector here,” he said.“The downside is when the recovery comes, Edmonton is very slow to pick up speed and that’s what we’re seeing now — that Calgary tends to come back quicker, goes down further and harder than we do, but comes back more quickly. And we’re seeing that same process again.”Brian Vaasjo, chief executive of Edmonton-based Capital Power, said he’s not surprised by the trend, given what he’s seen in both centres.He said construction of Rogers Place and developments around the Ice District, along with other public buildings in the city, “somewhat shielded Edmonton from some of the economic downturn.
The interior of Rogers Place arena while under construction, in Edmonton Alta. on Sunday May 29, 2016.
“Now that a lot of that construction is completed, it’s shielding the economy less in Edmonton than it has in the past.”Regardless of what city one lives in, finding a job still remains a tough slog for thousands of unemployed Albertans.Those on the front lines of the job hunt, particularly in the oilpatch, say it’s difficult to find a full-time position in their field, as companies are reluctant to spend money or ramp up hiring.Alan Jackson, a reservoir-engineering technologist from Cochrane, has been looking for work since losing his position at a large petroleum producer in May 2017.“I don’t sense it getting better. I sense it’s a struggle for everyone, and people I talk to who are employed are worried that tomorrow could be their last day,” said Jackson, who is considering a shift out of the energy industry after more than three decades.“There are opportunities out there … but it is harder and harder.”Dan Imer of Calgary, a reservoir engineer who lost his job a year ago, has noticed a number of employment postings have popped up in recent months, but the competition is intense.“I know I’m competing against hundreds or thousands of other people for those positions, and I’ve started looking south,” he said.“It’s very frustrating at times and you have to keep picking yourself up and dusting yourself off.”Job losses in any segment of the economy or part of the province remain a critical concern, and show Alberta may not be in a technical recession, but it’s not out of the woods. The province is still struggling with the fallout of lower commodity prices, a restructured energy industry and chronic market-access woes.Roach expects the provincial economy will expand by less than one per cent in 2019, before GDP growth moves closer to two per cent next year.“It’s like there’s a stalled car on the road and one lane is getting through,” he said. “If you could just get that stalled car out of the way, things would get going again.”Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald firstname.lastname@example.org