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Hot job market feeds Alberta’s record population boom

A hot job market helped Alberta grab top spot among Canadian provinces and territories in 2011 on the so-called human development index, which tracks life expectancy, education and income, according to a report being released Friday by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. 'Incomes are big part of human development,' pointed out Andrew Sharpe, the centre’s executive director.

Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/jason franson The Globe and Mail

Alberta has the biggest population surge in the country, with a recording-breaking boom in both interprovincial migration and immigration.

A hot job market has become a magnet for workers from other provinces this year – namely Ontario, British Columbia and Newfoundland – while immigration to Alberta is at record levels.

It's easy to see why. The province's jobless rate ties with Saskatchewan for the lowest in the country, and employment has grown at more than three times the national average in the past year. Average weekly wages are the highest in the country. In the next decade, Alberta's government figures the province could be short 114,000 workers amid blistering demand.

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Still, one province's gains is another's loss. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland all saw steep – and accelerating – interprovincial losses in the first quarter of the year, deepening long-standing concerns about an exodus from the region.

The findings add to a trend highlighted in the country's last census: Alberta led the country's population growth between 2006 and 2011. Calgary and Edmonton are Canada's fastest-growing cities.

"It's because the opportunities are here," said Mike Wo, director of Edmonton Economic Development Corp., who relocated from Toronto for work. "Demand is definitely heating up and lots of employers are looking for candidates, both on the skilled, professional side and the unskilled side."

He's now fielding calls from groups of friends in other parts of Canada, keen on coming to work. They're in their mid-20s, "biologists and engineers and people in trades, looking to move across the country and rent homes together."

Edmonton and Northern Alberta are looking to hire several thousand trades workers this year, along with up to 2,000 engineers and scores of truck drivers and services personnel.

The province's population growth was the strongest in the country in the first three months of the year, Statistics Canada figures show. Both its population growth and interprovincial net migration were the highest for any first quarter on record. Immigration was at the highest level since 1971.

Across Canada, interprovincial movement has picked up after a lull during the recession – however, migration as a share of the population is still below levels in the 1970s and 1980s, notes Jacques Marcil, senior economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank.

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Alberta's situation is a contrast to other parts of the country and highlights deep divergences in Canada's labour market.

In Nova Scotia, 31,000 people received jobless benefits in March, while on average there were less than 5,000 job vacancies in the province, separate Statscan data this week show. In Alberta, meantime, there were on average more than 60,000 jobs available as of the same month.

Even if every EI beneficiary in Nova Scotia moved to Alberta and took a job, there would still be more than 30,000 jobs available in the Western province. If those Nova Scotians choose to stay in their home province to find work, at least 26, 000 of them would still be jobless.

Still, these large gaps – a difference of about 33,000 more people on EI than available jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador, and about 30,000 more in New Brunswick – show why a move across the country is increasingly becoming a reality for people in some parts of the country.

The federal government's recently proposed changes to the EI system include providing recipients with more information on available jobs in their area. If that program could be expanded to show available jobs nationally, it's likely more people would "realize that they have to move," said Arthur Sweetman, an economics professor at McMaster University.

"There definitely are too many people for the number of jobs in many Eastern provinces," Mr. Sweetman said, "but the EI system that the federal government operates allows that to continue."

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This is by design, Mr. Sweetman added.

"At the end of the day the government can't force people to move," he said, "but it can give people good information about what's happening in other parts of the country."

Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only places where there are actually more job vacancies than people collecting EI, pointing to the need for training to address labour shortages in both provinces.

Even within the same province, realities of the labour market and proposed changes to the EI system will likely result in migration away from rural areas and toward urban ones, said Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre, a think tank.

"Within regions people are supposed to be willing to take available jobs up to an hour commute," Mr. Medhelson said. "In some regions that might mean clustering closer to urban centres."

A EI beneficiary who lived 45 minutes from Halifax for example will be forced to take available work if it exists in the city. Mr. Mendelsohn said that person is likely to think, "Well if I'm going to have to work in Halifax I may as well move closer to Halifax."

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