Alberta’s hot labour market burns neighbours

Job vacancies push wages up and attract employees from other provinces

In the eight months that Keely Hammond has worked as a hotel manager at the Radisson Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, wages across the board have gone up by $2 an hour — from $8 to $10 for dishwashers and $10 to $12 for housekeepers.

In spite of that, Hammond is still working at 60 per cent of normal staffing levels. “We’re hiring anyone who comes in from the street.

“Between myself and the other two managers, we’re doing dishes at night, we’re doing the laundry. Once in a while, we’ll need a break; we’ll need to not be on the property for a whole day. But that doesn’t happen very often — maybe once a month,” said Hammond, who was working at the Radisson in Niagara Falls in Ontario when the company told her she was needed in the oil-sands town.

“Even when you have days off, you end up pitching in where you’re needed. If you see the housekeeping department short-staffed, you don’t want them to get stressed and have all of them quit. So you do it yourself.”

In Fort McMurray, the primary constraint is a lack of affordable housing for those working in the service sectors. At the Radisson, the immediate plan is to expand the number of staff apartments, which now house 15 people. “Right now, we’re looking at even turning some of our guest rooms into apartments. We don’t want to do that, because the demand for rooms is huge. And we don’t want to lose revenue. But the fact is you can’t rent it out if you can’t clean it.”

The situation in Fort McMurray may be extreme, but overall, the labour shortage in Alberta has resulted in an overall rise in pay of 8.67 per cent in two years. According to the 2005 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, wages increased on average from $19.68 per hour in 2003 to $21.39 per hour in 2005. The survey, conducted by Alberta’s Human Resources and Employment department in partnership with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, also found 56 per cent of responding employers reporting difficulties in filling vacancies, up from 52 per cent in 2003. About 6,700 Alberta employers participated in the survey, representing more than 300,000 full- and part-time employees in 480 different occupations.

According to the survey, the top 10 occupations experiencing high rates of job vacancy include a mix of professional occupations, skilled trades and low-skilled entry-level occupations (see sidebar).

Roger Sauvé, president of labour market consultancy People Patterns Consulting, said although wage increases in Alberta seem to be rising fastest among selected professional occupations, they’re especially evident in low-skill entry-type occupations such as cashiers and bartenders.

“This suggests that the labour tightness is moving down,” said Sauvé. The wage increases are fastest in Alberta, which saw average weekly wages rise by 5.2 per cent in July from a year earlier. “This is the highest in Canada, with Saskatchewan in second place at 4.4 per cent,” added Sauvé, citing figures from Statistics Canada’s Employment, Earnings and Hours series.

Sauvé said the pressure on wages in Alberta is certainly causing a ripple effect in the western provinces. But there’s also “an indirect ripple which is seen first of all in the unemployment rate.” Alberta’s unemployment in the first eight months of this year was 3.9 per cent, down from 4.6 in the first eight months of 2004, he noted. In British Columbia, unemployment fell from 7.5 per cent in 2004 to 6.2 in 2005.

“For B.C., this is the lowest rate in over a decade,” said Sauvé, adding that the rates in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba have both fallen to below five per cent over the same period.

Ripple effects are also seen in interprovincial migration patterns, Sauvé noted. “During the latest quarter — April to June 2005 — Alberta and British Columbia were the only provinces that had net gains in interprovincial migration. All of the rest were supplying workers to these provinces.”

At the Hotel Association of Saskatchewan, president and CEO Tom Mullin said the labour demand in Alberta is certainly a “significant” contributor to the “tough labour market” that association members are experiencing.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had a drain here in Saskatchewan,” said Mullin. “For people coming out of the universities and the technical schools and who are well-trained, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be Calgary and Edmonton. We’re losing a significant number to those two cities.”

Mullin added that the association is currently working on developing strategies to hold back the tide of Alberta-bound workers, which may include marketing the opportunities available in the province, as well as improving wages.

Drawing on his involvement in the hotel associations in Regina and Saskatoon, Mullin said “we find that in both cities, we were suffering from low rates and it’s hurting our business.”

However, he expressed some doubt as to whether hotel employers in Saskatchewan could keep up with wage increases in Alberta, which are 8.6 per cent for cooks and 8.3 per cent for hosts and hostesses from 2003 to 2005.

“Generally overall wage increases (in Saskatchewan) have been in the two- to three-per-cent range to cover the increases in consumer price index, and maybe as high as five. I don’t know about eight per cent, whether the industry could handle that.”

Employers in the tourism and hospitality sectors in Manitoba and British Columbia are also experiencing a labour tightness, though not necessarily due to the labour demand in Alberta. “I know people leave because they think things are sexier in Alberta and B.C.,” said Bev Shuttleworth, executive director of the Manitoba Tourism Education Council. “But I wouldn’t call it a ripple effect. We’re in the same situation, but in Alberta they feel the impact more because they have more resorts and properties.”

With employers reporting that it can take 12 weeks to fill a cook position, operators are starting to pay more than minimum wage, she added.

In B.C., “we hear anecdotally of people losing workers to hotels in Alberta,” said Lynne Henshaw, marketing and communications director of go2, a provincial industry association for tourism operators. In certain locales such as the Kootenay Valley near the border of Alberta, hiring difficulties are exacerbated by the number of Calgarians purchasing properties, hence making housing for service workers more scarce, Henshaw added. Overall, 41 per cent of 400 tourism industry managers surveyed by go2 said they have difficulty finding qualified and experienced staff.

Top 10 Alberta job vacancies

The 2005 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey notes job vacancy rates as follows:

•professional occupations in physical sciences (17.7 per cent);

•structural metal and platework fabricators and fitters (13.2 per cent);

•oil and gas drilling, servicing and related labourers (9.7 per cent);

•food service supervisors (9.4 per cent);

•glaziers (8.8 per cent);

•cooks (8.6 per cent);

•maîtres d’hôtel and hosts/hostesses (8.3 per cent);

•cashiers(nine per cent)

•automotive service technicians (7.8 per cent); and

•some medical technologists and technicians (7.7 per cent).

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