Workers are flocking back to Alberta after a recessionary lull, with the province's hot jobs market luring people from every region of the country.
Alberta tallied the fastest growth rate in Canada in the first quarter of the year, with its net inflow from other provinces hitting the highest level for a first quarter in five years, Statistics Canada's preliminary population estimates show.
The numbers reveal that labour movement is bouncing back after virtually drying up in 2009 and 2010, suggesting the hiatus was only a lull in a 15-year stampede of western migration.
"It's back to the level of a few years ago," said Jonathan Chagnon, demographer at Statscan. "Pretty much all provinces seem to be losing to Alberta."
Mobility is key for several reasons. For workers, it can help them land a job or better opportunity in another province, potentially boosting their earnings. For provinces that need workers, it can help fill key gaps in skills or labour shortages. Broadly, it can also reduce pressures as fewer people rely on jobless benefits or social assistance.
Jeff Blay, 22, landed in Northern Alberta earlier this month after he and his girlfriend drove from St. Catharines, Ont., for new jobs. Rather than face the prospect of more low-paying jobs outside of his field, the recent journalism grad decided to relocate.
"It seems there are a lot more opportunities for jobs out here than Ontario," said Mr. Blay, who is now a reporter for the weekly Peace River Record Gazette, while his girlfriend, 21, is an event planner for the local chamber of commerce. "Just in our town, if you walk around, whether it's gas stations, pizza places, accountant shops or hairdressers, there are help-wanted signs in almost every window."
Alberta has led the country's job growth over the past year, with employment swelling by 2.8 per cent. The province's jobless rate is 5.4 per cent, compared with a national average of 7.4 per cent.
Last week, the province's website launched a forecast of jobs most likely to face shortages between this year and 2013: retail trade managers, restaurant and food service managers, and mechanical and petroleum engineers. Computer programmers are also likely to be in short supply along with web designers and family physicians. It's also running a new Facebook page on Fort McMurray jobs.
Alberta saw a net inflow of 5,275 people in the first quarter of 2011 from other provinces. It attracted people from every province except Quebec, with Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario sending the most.
The flow of people from Newfoundland to Alberta had slowed in prior years, but that movement resumed in the first three months of this year, Mr. Chagnon said.
Trends are shifting between Saskatchewan and Alberta. Workers had left Saskatchewan for its westerly neighbour in 2005 and 2006, but that reversed in 2007, 2008 and 2010. Now, for the first quarter "Saskatchewan is again losing people to Alberta," he said.
Manitoba also saw a net outflow, with most people going to British Columbia or Alberta.
Manpower Canada general manager Lori Procher said her recruitment firm is seeing signs of a resurgence of interprovincial hiring - and demand from Alberta's oil patch is the leading source. "Alberta is once again finding itself challenged to find the talent it requires," she said in a recent interview. "We're working across the country to find individuals willing to go to Western Canada."
Many moving west are coming from the hard-hit manufacturing belt in Southern Ontario, filling a strong demand for engineering and electronics technologists and heavy equipment operators and mechanics, she said.
The demand is so great that Ms. Procher has encouraged her own teenaged son to consider training in a skilled trade, she adds.
"I think there's a great opportunity for young people to look at that field," she said.
A recent survey of private- and public-sector employees by the Canadian Employee Relocation Council has found employees are "far more likely" to move to Western Canada than any other region, said chief executive officer Stephen Cryne. "We're seeing renewed growth - unfreezing is probably a good way to describe it," Mr. Cryne said. "The western provinces are the most likely destinations for people to relocate."
He said Canadians remain more reluctant to move, however, than Americans, who are traditionally "more apt to just pick up and move" to follow the flow of jobs. That trend, he notes, has slowed in recent years following the collapse of the U.S. real estate market, which has made it more difficulty for workers to sell their homes. A tendency to stick close to home can hamper growth, economists say, because labour mobility ultimately makes people work more productively where their talent is best used.
But University of Ottawa economist Serge Coulombe says Canada has been unfairly tagged with having low labour mobility, arguing the data are misleading because there are 50 states and they tend to be much smaller than Canada's provinces. Canadians frequently move within the same province, and would appear as interprovincial migrants if large provinces like Ontario and Quebec were smaller.
Prof. Coulombe says his work suggests Canadians have quite high levels of labour mobility, particularly compared to Europeans who much more rarely move, even within their home countries.
But the trend has a downside. The people who move are typically younger, more educated and more skilled than the provincial average, which means provinces with long trends of outward migration are losing their most valuable "human capital," Prof. Coulombe argues. That increases the disparity between richer and poorer provinces.
International immigrants can close some of the gap and the balance is also somewhat offset by large amounts of pay brought or sent back home by workers who don't move permanently. Some workers from Atlantic Canada, for example, take jobs in northern Alberta but maintain homes in Atlantic Canada and return every few weeks.
"They come back home with a lot of money and they renovate their houses, and then they go back to Alberta," Prof. Coulombe said.
Two provinces that have historically been among the most likely to lose workers have seen the trend shift in recent years. Newfoundland has posted net growth of interprovincial workers in each of the past two years, marking its first annual gains from migration since 1975. And Saskatchewan, which posted a net loss in interprovincial workers every year from 1983 to 2005, posted net gains in each year from 2006 to 2010, although it recorded a loss of 600 people to interprovincial migration in the first quarter this year.
Saskatchewan now boasts the country's lowest jobless rate at 5 per cent, and is taking assertive steps to attract labour. It has a program that grants tuition rebates to recent graduates who work in the province that sees them receive up to $20,000 reimbursed over a seven-year period. It has issued nearly 50,000 certificates for the graduate retention program since 2008.
Saskatchewan also runs one of the most complete labour market information websites in the country. Its job board posted 13,450 new jobs in May, a 53-per-cent increase from last year's level. Online visits to its SaskJobs site hit a record in the month, with traffic mostly from Ontario, followed by Alberta and British Columbia.
Canadian relocations paid by employers faltered during the recession, stabilized last year and have risen 6 per cent so far this year from last year's levels, said Scott Sullivan, executive vice-president of global sales and marketing at Brookfield Global Relocation Services, which oversees about 50,000 relocations around the world each year.
Much of the movement this year has been to Alberta, he says.
"Higher commodity prices are driving increased demand" for workers in sectors such as energy, mining and agriculture, he said in an interview from Chicago.