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Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, is visiting eastern cities in a bid to lure workers to Calgary. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, is visiting eastern cities in a bid to lure workers to Calgary. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Labour crunch

Calgary mayor headhunts in Eastern Canada as job crunch looms Add to ...

The whole country is talking about jobs. In Ontario, the provincial election is all about jobs. In Ottawa on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is beginning the fall season of Parliament, vowing to put his government’s focus on jobs. The official opposition NDP is promising to do the same.

And then there’s Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

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He’s talking about jobs, too. But he’s not worried about how to create them. Rather, he is in the enviable position of worrying about how to fill them.

So with his pockets bulging with job applications, the mayor is heading east this week – to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. He’s coming to sell university students, business people and politicians on his city as a great place to live and a fabulous place to make lots of money.

“The general sense in Calgary is that we are starting to go into another labour crunch both for people in the trades, but in particular for white-collar workers this time as well,” the mayor said in an interview Friday.

By white-collar workers, he means jobs for everyone from geophysicists to engineers to IT professionals to investment bankers. He’s also looking for young, professional people to come to the city and put down roots.

“So we want to try to get ahead of that as best we can,” he said. Getting ahead of a potential labour shortage meant launching a new campaign in July – “Calgary: Be part of the energy.” The eastern tour is part of that.

For Lee Richardson, a Tory MP from Calgary and longtime political operator, Mr. Nenshi and his eastern sales pitch is reminiscent of another Alberta politician during the boom in the mid- to late-70s.

“We’ve been here before,” says Mr. Richardson. “This is what Peter Lougheed did during the first real boom here. I can remember travelling with Peter on a fairly regular basis to Toronto to talk to people and speak to the economic clubs . . .”

Mr. Richardson sees similarities between the mayor and the former Progressive Conservative premier. Not only is he just as energetic but he is “outward looking,” trying to picture and position the city for 20 years down the road.

Mr. Nenshi says that coming out of the global recession, Calgary didn’t have much of a bust. But city planners learned a lesson during the boom from 2005 to 2008, when businesses had trouble hiring and retaining workers and many people moving to Calgary had trouble finding housing.

This new campaign is aimed at trying to move to a steadier growth path, he says. It is estimated that there will be two million more people in the region over the next 50 or 60 years.

“It would be better if they didn’t all come at once,” he says.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister is from Calgary and that Alberta is owned by the Harper Conservatives, Mr. Nenshi says the federal government has been “cautiously welcoming” to him since his election last year.

There is some political tension between the two levels of government.

He think it’s great that Stephen Harper is one of his constituents – in fact, the first time he met the Prime Minister he told him his neighbourhood was about to get a new LRT stop. That aside, he believes Mr. Harper is only slowly coming around to the realization that the federal government needs to play a bigger role in cities.

Mr. Nenshi acknowledges the promise made by the Tories during the election to set up a process with all cities to determine a long-term role in funding infrastructure. He calls this “a very big deal,” as was making the gas-tax transfer permanent.

But more needs to be done – such as extending the stimulus infrastructure spending.

“I can take anything they can throw at me and I promise we will put it to good use,” he says. “We actually spent the stimulus spending really well . . . it wasn’t just dubious infrastructure projects.”

He says his city has $2-billion in infrastructure needs.

As for his foray east, Mr. Nenshi is not trying to supplant Toronto as the centre of the universe – although it’s hard not to observe that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is struggling with deep cuts while Mr. Nenshi is promoting a flush city full of jobs.

“While a little bit of healthy competition among cities is a good thing, we also have to recognize that having great global cities in Canada is good for all of us,” he says, adding that it’s time for the federal government to recognize this, too.

“In a new global economy we have to have tremendously successful global cities because it’s the cities that attract the talent from around the world that we really need,” says the mayor.

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