“I’m just here for the money.”
Unfortunately, it’s a refrain heard too frequently in Alberta. With its strong economy and skilled labour shortages, the province is once again a destination for interprovincial migrants seeking work. But if Alberta is going to succeed in the long run, it needs to be more than just the national ATM machine: Get in, get your cash, get out.
Former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan knows Alberta. At a recent symposium of economists at the University of Alberta, she spoke passionately about the province’s future. She was one of the authors of the Shaping Alberta’s Future report, which makes five flagship recommendations for how the province can position its economy to prosper in the coming decades. She quoted one young person who took part in the report’s consultation: “Alberta needs to become a destination of intent, not of circumstance.”
Alberta is not the socially backward wasteland that the rest of the country wants to believe, and most Albertans wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. They find it beautiful and vibrant, offering an outstanding quality of life. But, sadly, that sentiment is not unanimous. Many recent arrivals have no plan to stay. They find themselves in the province out of circumstance, usually financial.
The challenge for Alberta is to morph into a destination of intent. People from around the world gravitate to places such as London, Barcelona, New York and Toronto on purpose. These cities offer much beyond a paycheque – experiences, community and enrichment. More than just a job machine, Alberta needs to become the place where anything is possible. Cities and towns across the province need to be places of opportunity for more than just the oil field worker and the doughnut shop cashier. They need to offer a place for writers, accountants, painters and social workers. Alberta can become all things to all people – a place where opportunity is yours to create.
So how can Alberta get there? To build on its strengths, Alberta needs to position itself as the centre for entrepreneurialism. The province has a long history of people willing to take risks and build things from scratch. For newcomers, it doesn’t matter who your dad is. As long as you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be embraced. The province needs to tap into this characteristic.
How about establishing the Alberta Centre for the Creative Entrepreneur? The public and private sectors could collaborate, chipping in serious money to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world. Such a centre wouldn’t be just another academic business school; it would bring together individuals willing to challenge their entrepreneurial prowess.
Give them the financial clout they need to commercialize research being done in Alberta universities. Waive admission fees for 1,000 participants with the most ingenious ideas. Bring in the world’s innovative designers and inspiring business leaders. Hire artists, dancers and musicians to energize not just the financial bottom line but also to invigorate creativity and design. Break the rules and create a whole new kind of learning experience. Rub ideas together. The province has unleashed its natural resources; now it needs to unleash a community of creative minds.
By building institutions and communities that go beyond the booms and busts of natural resources, Alberta has the potential to attract great people. They won’t come for the quick paycheques – they’ll come because the province believes in the ideas of its people.
Alberta has been dealt so many trump cards. Yet, for all its charms, it sometimes has difficulty retaining people. They get it and cash out. To become a place of intent, not of circumstance, the province needs to think beyond the mediocre. It needs to establish itself as a global place where anything is possible. Fostering a new breed of creative entrepreneurs would be a good starting point.
Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based senior economist at ATB Financial. The opinions expressed are his own.