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Critics paint ‘bleaker picture’ amid Alberta’s jobs optimism

Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci leaves a conference in Edmonton on June 29, 2017.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Alberta government is boasting about the tens of thousands of new jobs that have emerged since the bottom of the recession as a sign the economy is gaining momentum, but critics and independent experts argue labour-market figures show the excitement may be overblown.

Minister of Finance Joe Ceci said Alberta has added roughly 70,000 full-time jobs, largely in the private sector, since the middle of 2016. This is equivalent to replacing roughly two-thirds of the jobs that evaporated at the recession's trough. However, the province's employment rate, which measures the number of Albertans working and accounts for the growing population rate, has barely budged. Further, while the job numbers are indeed rising, it does not mean Albertans are flush with cash.

Alberta's employment numbers are a key talking point as the ruling New Democratic Party spars with the newly formed United Conservative Party. The UCP fiercely argues the government is responsible for job losses across the province and is not doing enough to get Albertans back on payrolls. The NDP, in turn, touts figures such as the 70,000 full-time jobs as proof the province and its economy are in safe hands.

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"Drilling activity is up, retail sales are up, construction is up, and job creation is up, too," Mr. Ceci told reporters on Tuesday. "Rather than give people pink slips, we gave them hammers, lab coats and laptops."

Drew Barnes is the finance critic for the UCP, a party that combined the province's now-dissolved Progressive Conservative Party and Wildrose Party. The government's job calculation does not mean Albertans are flourishing, he said. "The wages are lagging," Mr. Barnes said in an interview. "On a young family, that's pretty tough."

Trevor Tombe is an economics professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. The government's update contained a number of oddities, he said, ranging from Mr. Ceci's buzz over jobs to the NDP's decision not to adjust its oil price forecast for the better.

Prof. Tombe noted that while 70,000 full-time jobs may have emerged, that does not mean they are exclusively filled by Albertans. The provincial employment rate, Prof. Tombe said, is a more useful yardstick. It focuses solely on Albertans and measures the share of Albertans over the age of 15 who are employed.

Alberta's employment rate ahead of the recession peaked at 69.5 per cent in January, 2015, and bottomed at 66.1 per cent in July, 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Last month, the rate clocked in at 66.6 per cent, meaning it has only gained 0.5 per cent since the recession's most damaging month.

"That's a much bleaker picture," Prof. Tombe said. "It shows that it has quite a bit more to go because the [population] of Alberta has increased."

The second-quarter update forecasts a deficit of $10.31-billion in fiscal 2017-18, an improvement over the original budget of $10.49-billion. This assumes West Texas intermediate crude will average $49 (U.S) a barrel for the fiscal year, which is a conservative choice in light of improving energy markets.

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The price of the benchmark oil has strengthened as rising demand helps drain bloated inventories in the United States, eroding a glut that has weighed on prices for more than three years. WTI settled at $57.71 on Tuesday.

The government, Prof. Tombe argued, could have boosted its oil prediction to roughly $53 a barrel in the fiscal year without being irresponsible. That would have lifted revenue forecasts, which would have put a greater dent in the deficit at Tuesday's second-quarter update.

"They might be trying to shift the good news to as close to the election as possible," Prof. Tombe said.

Albertans are expected to head to the polls in 2019.

With a report from Jeff Lewis

Morneau on fresh spending as economy exceeds projections (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

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