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The REAL Cost of Unemployment in Alberta – Read an Oil & Gas Worker’s Story – Wendy Ferguson

A commentary by Wendy Ferguson

My published piece last month, Energy Sector Still Suffering in Alberta, attracted a great deal of attention from Albertans.  One of our readers who reached out to me agreed to let me share with you his sentiments regarding his unemployment experience as an energy sector professional in Alberta:

“I am one of those unemployed people, who have been out of work for the past 3 years. I have done everything from applying everywhere to networking to taking help in resume crafting. I have 5 years of work experience, hard working and a qualified engineer with a M.Eng degree in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, but none of those means anything.  I tried switching industries, but no one is willing to give me a chance in any new field.  I feel stuck and helpless.  I thought of going back to school next year for an upgrade…as much as I loved to work in oil and gas, it is a dying industry in Alberta.  Lack of government support, lack of investments, and stringent policies on carbon levy will not bring much prosper in this industry. My confidence is slowly shattering.”

I have been receiving emails like this from strangers for years.   But this individual’s raw and honest words particularly struck a chord with me.  This is what depletion sounds like.  Anyone would feel this way after three years of discouragement.  [And I can tell you, it is not easy for professionals to get work in unskilled and low-paying jobs as a cushion to provide for their families while looking for work in their field of expertise.  They are often rejected from those jobs too, because they are over-qualified and employers generally avoid hiring them if they know they will flee at first chance].  I’m guessing his employment insurance ran out at least two years ago.  He’s done all the right things to find work, like so many other Albertans.  The only advice I could give him was: 1) consider relocation 2) explore some provincially-subsidized tech training and see what you can get for free 3) send me your resume and I will help you if I can.  I wanted to add… 4) pray for a change in government in 2019.

How incredibly dysfunctional is our Province that we have such an abundance of potential and natural resources and nearly 200,000 eager, highly-qualified, hard-working individuals reduced to being stuck and helpless?!

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) declares that “work is an essential part of participation in society.  The loss of paid employment can have serious psychosocial, as well as economic, effects.  The CMHA recognizes that access to meaningful paid employment is a basic human right.  In a fair and equitable nation, social justice demands government standards which promote full employment and programs which assist those who are unemployed”.  That’s right…a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT.

What is this full employment we strive for?  It’s an economic situation whereby all available labour resources are used in the most efficient way possible.  It doesn’t mean 0% unemployment, but rather the lowest possible unemployment rate with the economy growing and all factors of production being used as efficiently as possible.  There will always be unemployment with people moving between jobs, switching careers, relocating, etc.

Have the decisions made by our respective governments promoted full employment and programs which assist those who are unemployed?  NO.  The decisions or actions made by our government(s) have definitely not promoted full employment.  For instance, the inability to build a pipeline, carbon tax, minimum wage increase, Bill C-69, the roadblocks go on and on.  These decisions have only served to hinder employment in Alberta.  We have roughly 200,000 Albertans unemployed and only around 50,000 of them collecting employment insurance (soon to run out as the maximum benefit period in Canada is 45 weeks).  The remaining 150,000 unemployed (approximately the entire population of Lethbridge and Medicine Hat combined) have no income.  Yet, the Alberta government’s Economic Dashboard shows 40,600 vacant jobs in our Province in the last reported quarter.  Clearly, we are having some difficulty filling these positions, however as frustrating as it seems there could be many reasons for this including geographical location, skill requirements or even misreporting.

We’ve seen an influx of self-employed Albertans…410,000 Albertans are now self-employed, at an all time high in our province, and an increase of 43,000 from two years ago.  There are many people who choose to be self-employed, but many others who have been forced into it as their “Plan B”.  Rather than endure the time and cost of re-education, a career change, or remain unemployed, they have attempted to consult or contract or even try an entirely different business.  But overall, a self-employed person works 10% more hours per week and earns an average of 15% lower income.   There is no guarantee on income and certainly no protection in terms of employment standards or even availability of income supports if things nosedive.   Say goodbye to health benefits, pension plans or savings matching.  Self-employed individuals live especially at the mercy of the economy.

High unemployment rates hurt all Albertans and are linked to lower GDP, poverty, homelessness, crime, domestic violence, mental illness, suicide, poor health, strain on our healthcare system, social exclusion and more.  The reality is that crime has risen in Alberta for the 4th consecutive year now.  According to the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective, Alberta has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada, with family violence up 2% since 2014.  Suicide rates are also on the rise and according to the CMHA, 500 Albertans end their lives in suicide each year.   If you recall, back in 2015, in the depths of our recession, the suicide rate in Alberta rose 30% after oil patch layoffs.  Are we headed there once again?

I hope for the day when I can write about full employment and the success of our Province and when all those despairing emails disappear, when everyone who wants to work in Alberta can do so without such adversity.

One last plea: if you are one of those employers of the 40,600 vacant positions in Alberta and you are having difficulty filling your position, please consider hiring for attitude and then training for skill.  There are so many people out there right now that have applied for your jobs knowing they may not be a 100% fit, but they applied because they are interested in your company and eager to learn new skills.  If that doesn’t work, please contact me and I will fill your vacancies.  Let’s get Alberta working again!

I would love to hear from individuals or employers about your employment experiences in Alberta for my future pieces.  I invite you to email me at  Please follow me on LinkedIn for future articles about HR in Alberta.

Wendy Ferguson is a Human Resources Professional and owner of Stick People Solutions, providing simple, flexible and effective solutions for complex people issues.

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