Trades programs with hefty wait lists amid major labour shortages while Alberta takes 'full-court press' approach

There is a ‘skills mismatch within the Alberta economy,’ said one economist

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As Calgary immigration agencies report long wait lists for trades training programs, Premier Danielle Smith says her government is taking a “full-court press” approach to addressing the Alberta labour shortage.

Despite posting record population growth over the past two years, Alberta is still facing significant labour shortages in the trades as baby boomers leave the industry and it regains popularity after the COVID-19 pandemic wrought job instability for workers.

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That has contributed to a “skills mismatch within the Alberta economy,” resulting in labour shortages in a handful of industries, said Mike Holden, chief economist with the Business Council of Alberta.

“Alberta has specific labour shortages and unmet demand in areas like the trades, as well as health care — especially in nursing and some other zones,” Holden said in an interview.

When he tabled the government’s 2024-25 budget last week, Finance Minister Nate Horner 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.”

Job postings in Alberta for the trades — up 13 per cent on a compounded annual average from 2018 to 2023 — substantially outpaced population growth for the same period, according to a Wednesday report from the Business Council of Alberta. The trades were second behind job postings in health care, which grew 16 per cent over the same period.

There are even more stark shortages in specific occupation categories such as helpers and labourers, technical construction trades and transport drivers, which saw more than 150 per cent increases in job postings over the past five years.

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Danielle Smith with Calgary Catholic Immigration Society directors and staff
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith chats with Calgary Catholic Immigration Society directors and staff at the society’s Embracing the Future of Alberta Trades event at the Petroleum Club in Calgary on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Monika Bhandari, programs operations manager of YYCTrades training for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), said the confluence of baby boomers retiring from the sector and COVID-19, which upended trades workers’ job stability for several years, have left a hole in the sector that may take several years to shore up.

“That gap is widening,” she said, adding CCIS is seeing more apprentices being trained for full-time work — but the results may not be seen for another three to four years.

“We’re trying to fill that gap. We don’t see that happening right now.”

CCIS currently offers one class respectively each year for electrical, pipe trades and carpentry. Bahndari said that if CCIS’ funding increased, the wait list for its programs could support double to triple the number of classes.

Alberta is Calling campaign renewed

The provincial government is attempting to address the issue through a renewed Alberta is Calling campaign, which will offer a $5,000 attraction bonus to 2,000 skilled workers through a refundable tax credit. Alberta has released few details on the program and hasn’t said which sectors it will target. More details are expected in the coming months.

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Smith, speaking Wednesday at the Calgary Petroleum Club, said Alberta will be “doing a little narrower of a call” for this iteration of the campaign. That effort will run alongside an advertising campaign across Canada and align with its immigration nomination program, she said.

“We’re doing a full-court press, and you’ll see a lot more of that over the coming months.”

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Alberta’s 2024-25 budget also allocates $100 million for apprenticeship programs that will add 3,200 seats. “There’s much more we’re looking at,” Smith said, adding she’s asked Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides to investigate whether the province can give high school students advanced entry into trades programs, which she said would allow them to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

While labour shortages make it difficult for certain industries such as homebuilding, Smith said labour shortages are “a very good problem to have.”

“It means we have a strong economy, and it means that there is almost unlimited opportunity for Albertans and people looking to move here,” she said. “A labour shortage is, as I say, a lot better than the alternative — however, it is a challenge.”

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