In August 2018, ATB Financial released a report saying that 115,000 Alberta residents were unemployed and not receiving EI. This was an improvement from the 133,000 who were unemployed and not receiving financial benefits one year earlier.
As I write this editorial, 182,500 Albertans are unemployed – an increase of 17,200 from the same time a year ago. Alberta’s annual unemployment rate has been above the national average for three consecutive years and with ongoing challenges to the energy economy this is forecast to continue through 2019 and 2020. If we consider what the statistical agencies call “discouraged workers” – i.e. those who have given up looking for a job – the 200,000 unemployed Albertans figure being used by HR firms seems all too credible.
Polling conducted for CBC in March 2018, showed that 42 per cent of Albertans were finding it difficult (32 per cent Somewhat, 10 per cent Very) to meet their monthly household expenses, 37 per cent thought their household economic situation was worse than a year before and 29 per cent expected improvement in the 12 months ahead. There is little reason to think these numbers would be much – if any – more positive today.
Alberta has experienced significant economic downturns before. Unemployment rates have, in fact, been much higher and on the basis of the raw numbers for employment and things like earnings, wholesale trade and manufacturing, some are arguing that Alberta’s recovery is real and the provincial economy is strong.
What is different this time around? And, with election day less than two weeks away, why does it matter?
The average employment income of oil and gas workers in 2016 was $125,300. By comparison, the average employment income across all industries was $50,900.
Economic statistics show that previous downturns were always accompanied by a return of jobs, more growth and still more hiring. Since 2015, the sorts of jobs lost – good “mortgage paying” fulltime jobs – have not returned and experts like Todd Hirsch, Chief Economist of ATB Financial, expect they are indeed gone for good. Jason Markusoff writing for MacLean’s has called this the death of the Alberta dream.
The School of Public Policy has reported that the average duration of unemployment has nearly tripled in the past ten years. In October 2018, an unemployed person in Alberta was out of work for an average of 20.9 weeks. Ten years earlier, in October 2008, this same measure was 7.4 weeks.
Polling results not surprisingly have shown again and again that Albertans are most concerned about jobs and the economy by huge margin over everything else.
This past weekend, the United Conservative Party (UCP) and the NDP each released their full 2019 election platform. Each talk at length about jobs. Each has a plan. The NDP talk about “creating jobs, not shedding them,” diversifying to create jobs and pledge their plan will bring $75 billion in new investment and 70,000 new jobs. The UCP say their Job Creation Tax Cut will create 55,000 new full-time jobs, the Carbon Tax Repeal Act another 6,000 new jobs and outline a series of other policies to deliver jobs in sectors like forestry, agriculture, tourism and of course, energy.
In launching their full party platforms, Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley each asked Albertans to trust in their plans. On this, the polling has been very clear and all but unanimous. No matter how the question is asked, Jason Kenney is seen by Albertans to be the best leader on jobs and the economy.
In September 2018, TD Economics issued a report noting that “the imminent death of oil is proving to be greatly exaggerated” and simultaneously making the point that the dependence of Alberta’s economy on the energy sector alone has steadily declined for two decades.
There is both hope and opportunity in these observations despite the many challenges of the day.
We have been down this road before, but as the Calgary at a Crossroads series has highlighted this time feels different and a recovery on paper – or in GDP statistics – may not actually be a return to past fortunes at all.
The question for Albertans is one of perspective and timing.
If jobs and the economy are what this election is all about, it is hard to imagine Jason Kenney not becoming Alberta’s next Premier.
If the lens through which voters view their ballot is longer term and broader than is suggested by the polls, Rachel Notley should not be counted out.
The result will be about the economy. At issue really is whose narrative about the future most resonates with Albertans and in whose plan they will place their trust.