Alberta and Newfoundland are engaging in a game of tug of war with oil sands workers as both energy-producing provinces attempt to lure Atlantic Canadians in a tight labour market.
Premier Andrew Furey made his sales pitch face-to-face with Newfoundland workers at a job fair last week in Fort McMurray, a community at the heart of the Athabasca oil sands in Northern Alberta and home to a diaspora of more than 10,000 workers from the easternmost Canadian province.
Mr. Furey encouraged workers to return home to new jobs that he said are coming in the economically beleaguered province.
“There are immense opportunities and there’s a new industrial landscape on the horizon,” he said in an interview.
If Newfoundland is successful, it could create a push and pull with Alberta, which has invested advertising dollars in recent years to attract people from Atlantic Canada and smaller Ontario cities to fill thousands of vacancies across the province through its Alberta is Calling campaign.
Through cheeky messaging on billboards, social media and on the airwaves, the campaign paints Alberta as an affordable option rich with opportunity. Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s, was targeted in the campaign announced earlier this year.
But Mr. Furey said now is the time for Newfoundlanders to come home. He said an expected 80,000 jobs will open up over the next decade in traditional industries as well as the emerging wind and hydrogen energy sector, with many in skilled trades, transport and equipment operation.
“In my lifetime, we’ve transitioned the industrial landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador from being largely based in fishing … to the oil and gas sector, and now we’ll transition again, on balance and in good measure, to the renewable space,” he said.
It could be an attractive prospect as the government of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has imposed a seven-month moratorium on wind and solar project approvals, which the industry has said will put jobs at risk and unnerve investors. Labour availability is already a challenge in the oil and gas sector as industry investment remains stalled and young people look to other careers.
The economic future of Newfoundland is still uncertain however, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada report. GDP growth in the province is forecast to slow considerably beyond 2030.
By 2045, the province’s GDP is predicted to grow by a mere 0.5 per cent a year – the lowest rate among the provinces, said the report titled Demographic Troubles and Opportunities in Energy: Newfoundland and Labrador’s Outlook to 2045. Between now and 2045, the population is expected to decline by 60,000.
But if a suite of fruitful economic projects moves forward, that may change the balance, said the Conference Board’s director of economic forecasting.
“A lot can happen over the long term,” said Ted Mallett, referring to the renewable hydrogen project in Stephenville, mining in Labrador and the White Rose offshore oil and gas field to be developed over the next decade.
In Alberta, the Pathways Alliance, comprised of Canada’s largest oil sands companies, is already worried about what labour availability will mean for its huge carbon capture pipeline project.
The ambitious project, meant to help reduce emissions in production to net-zero by 2050, comprises 400-kilometres of pipeline from the Fort McMurray oil sands to Cold Lake in Northern Alberta, where captured carbon will be stored underground. Companies are looking to start procurement early next year, just as other sectors – cement, steel production, petrochemicals – ramp up their own emissions-reduction goals.
The problem is there are only so many workers available in Western Canada, the president of Pathways, Kendall Dilling, told The Globe and Mail at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary last week.
“We’re doing things now to try and get ahead of that in terms of getting more apprentices into the skilled trades and building that work force, because one way or another this is the next big wave of construction activity across the country – decarbonization writ large,” he said.
“We need to make sure we’ve got the work force and the supply chain prepared to support that volume of work because it’s going to be substantial.”
PetroLMI tracks Statistics Canada data to compile industry-specific labour market details. According to its August bulletin, the unemployment rate stood at around 3.3 per cent in Alberta’s oil and gas sector. It noted that the tight labour market could impede job growth and overall industry recovery.
Newfoundland, with a population of just over half a million, has steadily lost more people to other provinces than it has gained over the last several decades, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
For years, the government has tried to entice its diaspora back with various “come home” efforts. However, Mr. Furey said the most recent drive is unique.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that there’d be a job fair here in Fort McMurray to try to recruit Newfoundlanders to come home, I think I would’ve laughed,” he said. “But this is a real opportunity. It’s not smoke and mirrors.”
Dianna de Sousa, executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, said she isn’t surprised at the Premier’s creativity. “It’s fair game,” she said with a laugh but added that she isn’t worried that workers will retreat from Alberta.
Ms. de Sousa said rents and housing prices in the area have decreased and the community itself is family-oriented with one of the largest recreational complexes in Canada. But the true Alberta advantage, she said, is having no provincial sales tax.
“We are undeniably the most attractive province.”