Varcoe: Alberta set to call more workers, even as population boom continues

The province’s population has been growing rapidly over the past two years

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Alberta saw its biggest surge in population in more than four decades last year and as pressure points continue to emerge, Premier Danielle Smith says the province will take steps to tackle it.

Meanwhile, another phase of the Alberta is Calling campaign is expected in 2024, this time focused on drawing skilled workers to the province as the economy continues to expand.

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“We’ve got a bit of a unique market. And I think we have the ability to continue to welcome people here,” Smith said in a year-end interview.

“This is the place to be.”

The province’s population has been growing rapidly over the past two years.

Between July and September, the number of residents increased by 61,000, including 39,000 international newcomers and 17,000 people who relocated from other parts of the country.

The pull from British Columbia and Ontario has been noticeable, with the province running a targeted campaign to attract people here by touting the quality of life and more affordable housing prices.

The overall population of the province grew by about 194,000 over the previous 12 months and now tops 4.7 million, reflecting an annual 4.3 per cent growth rate — the fastest level seen since 1980.

Net interprovincial migration, which was negative from 2016 until 2021, has reversed sharply in the past two years, while international migration is robust, part of a national trend.

Housing prices and rents in the province have taken off, while hospitals and schools have also felt the effect of rising demand.

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So, was Alberta ready for the population boom of 2023?

“I don’t know if you can ever be truly ready. I mean, (former premiers) Lougheed experienced this in the ‘70s, Klein experienced it after the ’90s recession. Stelmach experienced it in the mid-2000s. And we’re experiencing it again now,” Smith said.

“I think we’re beginning to see some pressures on the housing market, but I’m also seeing that everybody is working together to address it.”

The premier pointed to a rebound in housing starts, which increased by 29 per cent in November from the same time a year ago.

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

The Calgary Real Estate Board reported Tuesday that the benchmark price for a home in the city topped $570,000 in December, fully 10 per cent higher than a year earlier, even as interest rates climbed.

Apartment rents jumped 10.4 per cent in December to average $2,081 in Calgary, according to

“It is pretty obvious that we are feeling the strain. It was such a quick turnaround,” said Janet Lane, director of skills, innovation and productivity at the Canada West Foundation.

“I don’t think we were ready for it, and I don’t think we’re quite ready for it yet.”

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With mounting pressures on housing costs, the Alberta NDP has called for the province to adopt a temporary rent cap, an idea the UCP has rejected.

“Everyone in this province deserves a safe, affordable place to call home,” NDP housing critic Janis Irwin said in a news release last month.

The premier said the province wants to create an environment where approvals for new housing and rental units can efficiently take place.

Large projects, such as Dow’s $9-billion integrated ethylene cracker and derivatives complex, and several agri-food investments in southern Alberta, are attracting investment and spurring employment growth, she added.

Such projects act as a magnet, pulling more people into the province to work.

“When you have people come, they have families that come with them and so you need to build new schools, you put more pressure on the roads, so you need to do more road work . . . We are seeing pressure on our hospital system,” the premier said.

“Schools, hospitals, roads, housing — those are going to be the main things that we have to make sure that we stay ahead of.”

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The strong population growth is expected to continue in 2024.

The Conference Board of Canada projects Alberta’s population will increase by 3.9 per cent this year.

“Calgary and Edmonton and Alberta in general have had great house prices by national standards and a decent economy, so people have moved there,” board senior economist Robin Wiebe said Tuesday.

“Our expectation is for more of the same, but not quite as heavy.”

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said Alberta’s population boom has meant a bump in personal income tax revenues for provincial coffers, but also increased demand for public services.

All levels of government are scrambling to change restrictive housing policies in the country, while more must be done to remove barriers surrounding the mobility of skilled workers, such as recognizing training credentials from other provinces, he said.

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“While the incredibly high rate of population growth that we saw in 2023 is unlikely to continue . . . the fact Alberta will lead the country in the pace of population growth, that’s a reality that will be with us for some time,” Tombe said.

Lilac Festival in Calgary
Thousands of people enjoy Calgary’s Lilac Festival on June 5, 2022. Alberta’s population is again growing faster than any other province in Canada, according to figures from Statistics Canada. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

As for a new initiative to attract more people to Alberta, the UCP promised during last year’s election campaign to create a program and offer at least $1,200 to newcomers who relocate to the province to work in designated high-demand jobs, such as health care and trades.

The program, which the party called the Alberta is Calling signing bonus, was estimated to cost $17 million. Smith said more details will come out during the next provincial budget.

“We need skilled workers,” she added.

“We know that being able to manage that growth means that we’ve got to get more boilermakers and millwrights and electricians and welders — and this is going to be our opportunity to tell the rest of the country that we love the professions and the trades, and we want you here.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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