Alberta is Calling, again — province wants more skilled workers to close labour gap

New programs planned to grow skilled labour workforce, ‘attraction bonus’ added to Alberta is Calling program

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The Alberta government is offering upsized incentives and expanding training programs as it seeks to plug a labour gap that persists despite record population growth in the province.

Finance Minister Nate Horner introduced a handful of new programs aimed at growing the province’s skilled labour force in Thursday’s budget, including a new round of the province’s Alberta is Calling campaign, which will offer a $5,000 attraction bonus to new skilled trades workers.

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“We still have a sincere need for specialized skilled labour,” Horner told reporters Thursday afternoon. He said projects such as Dow Inc.’s $9-billion petrochemicals project in Fort Saskatchewan “have the potential to completely drain the province of certain types of skilled labour.”

The province is projecting a 6.5 per cent unemployment rate for 2024 — higher than the 5.8 per cent national rate.

Its updated Alberta is Calling campaign includes a $5,000 “attraction bonus” through a refundable tax credit. The province is dedicating $10 million to the effort, which it said will help 2,000 workers relocate to Alberta.

Horner said criteria for that program will be “very specific.”

The final details are a shift from the province’s original plan for the campaign’s second phase. Last July, it said the program was allocating a total of $17 million at $1,200 a worker, with the intention of attracting 14,000 recipients.

Nate Horner
Nate Horner, President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance speaks to media at an embargoed Budget 2024 news conference prior to delivering the budget in the Alberta Legislature on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024 in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia

Mike Holden, chief economist with the Business Council of Alberta, said the program comes with ample benefits for the province, adding that 2,000 new workers won’t exacerbate already rising housing and rent prices.

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“In this case, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and there are things that can be done to accelerate new building on the housing front as well,” Holden said.

Alberta also plans to add more than 3,000 new seats in apprenticeship programs over the next year.

Overall, Alberta is putting $100 million in new funding toward apprenticeship programs that will add 3,200 seats, which it says will “help meet growing demand at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.”

That’s largely due to the province’s abnormally young population: 12.6 per cent of Albertans are between five and 14 years old — substantially more than the rest of Canada at 10.5 per cent. The Alberta Post-Secondary Network anticipates more than 35,000 students will be added by 2030.

In a report sent to parties running in last spring’s election, the network said Alberta stands to lose skilled workers to other provinces and countries if it doesn’t provide commensurate funding.

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Calgary Chamber ‘pleased’ with government’s focus on labour

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce was pleased Alberta is focusing on labour in the year’s budget. Ruhee Ismail-Teja, director of policy and communications for the Chamber, said nearly 29 per cent of businesses saw labour shortages restrict their growth in 2023.

“We’re pleased to see there is quite a bit of attention to the labour force in the budget,” said Ismail-Teja.

But she was surprised the province increased its International Qualifications Assessment Services fee, which rose from $200 to $280. Newcomers seeking certification to work in Alberta pay the fee.

“It’s not massive, but it is significant for newcomers who are facing a lot of barriers to be able to join the workforce,” she said.

Other measures include more apprenticeship seats, adding seats for STEM programs at U of C

Alberta’s post-secondary education programs are also receiving a handful of funding boosts in the coming year.

The University of Calgary is to receive $55 million over the next three years, according to the budget, which will add 1,000 spaces in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. The university received $59 million last year.

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As anticipated, Alberta isn’t making changes to its eight-per-cent corporate tax rate — the lowest in Canada.

Housing supply remains an issue

At the same time as Alberta struggles to attract specific workers, shelter costs are still rising for the average Albertan because of housing supply issues, the province’s fiscal plan says. In the near term, it says, upward pressure on rents and housing prices — already at record highs — will continue.

The province is predicting concrete will be poured for more than 38,000 homes, after posting 36,000 housing starts last year. The province’s projections for housing starts in future years is relatively flat.

Home construction in Calgary
Homes on the northern edge of Calgary were photographed on Tuesday, December 19, 2023. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Holden with the Business Council of Alberta said even if municipalities and the province take further steps to increase Alberta’s housing stock, the province will likely “bump into labour supply constraints.”

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce said it wanted to see the province have a stronger focus on affordable housing in this year’s budget, particularly given Alberta’s population growth.

Meanwhile, the average Albertan will “continue tightening their belts this year,” the plan says, especially as a wave of mortgage renewals comes up, which is expected to have a negative effect on overall consumer spending.

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Alberta’s population grew 4.1 per cent last year, resulting in net migration of more than 168,000 people. The province is projecting 3.7 per cent population growth this year, amounting to nearly 157,000 net growth.

ATB issues $100-million dividend; small business federation says it was hoping for lowered taxes

ATB Financial is meanwhile preparing to declare quarterly dividends totalling $100 million to the Alberta government in the 2025 fiscal year. Alberta is the Crown corporation’s shareholder. It would be the first-ever dividends since ATB became a commercial Crown corporation.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said the government’s commitment to freeze the education property tax — paid via municipal taxes — is “positive news.”

The CFIB said it was hoping the province would lower the two-per-cent small business tax rate and reduce insurance taxes. “Small businesses are not fully out of the woods and are facing the same economic difficulties felt across the province,” said Andrew Sennyah, Alberta senior policy analyst for CFIB.

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