On Campus

Alberta or bust!

Why highly skilled university graduates are flocking to Alberta

From the prestigious halls of Oxford University, Patrick MacDonald considered more than a few attractive offers on where to start his career as a research scientist. There was a job in southern Ontario, near his boyhood home and his extended family, where he earned his doctorate and undergraduate degrees. And there were offers in ruggedly beautiful Vancouver and trendy Montreal.

But in the end he chose to bring his wife and two young children to Edmonton.

Lured by opportunity and quality of life, MacDonald is one of a growing number of Canadian professionals who are moving to Alberta. New Statistics Canada figures show that along with tradespeople, there has been a huge surge of post-secondary school graduates coming to Alberta. And this has some provinces worried about losing their best and brightest after footing the bill for their education.

According to today’s Census numbers, Alberta has the highest share of workers who lived elsewhere five years earlier. An estimated 160,500 people, or 8.6 per cent, of Alberta workers moved to the province from other parts of Canada between 2001 and 2006, the census showed. Worker mobility was highest in two industries: mining, oil and gas extraction and public administration.

And the numbers show that highly educated Canadians were the most mobile. Alberta had a net increase of 28,000 post-secondary graduates between 2001 and 2006. Nearly 7,500 of the net increase came from Saskatchewan, while 7,200 came from Ontario and 6,575 from the Atlantic provinces. In all, more than one in five of Alberta’s post-secondary graduates studied outside the province.

“Professional opportunity is what made us open our eyes to Edmonton,” said MacDonald, 31, who is an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Alberta and a researcher at the new Alberta Diabetes Institute. “It is no different than any other type of job. Alberta is seen as a place of limitless possibility at the moment. That really applied to my decision to take the job here. The family-friendly community clinched it.”

Jack Mintz, former president of the C.D. Howe Institute, is another newcomer who moved to Alberta just last month. Mintz gave up his position as a University of Toronto professor to oversee the creation of the University of Calgary’s new School of Policy Studies. Saying good-bye to Yorkville and other favourite Toronto haunts was tough, but the opportunity in Calgary was just too good to pass up, he said.

Mintz rejects the premise that the migration of professionals to provinces with hot economies such as Alberta and British Columbia is bad for Canada. “It raises the boat for everybody in the end, because you get a natural movement to where jobs are,” he said. “Where they leave, businesses will have to increase wages they are paying their smaller workforce. In the end, people there are also better off. It’s a dynamic thing.”

Mintz, a fiscal and tax policy expert, likens the trend to capital moving to where it can get the highest return. He said the situation is creating competition, forcing other jurisdictions to come up with innovative ways to keep their professionals at home. “If a community wants to keep their top people,they have to think about how they can make their own area very attractive,” he said.

Provinces that have been losing professionals have been working hard to stem the flow, with some success. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have all announced tuition fee or tax rebate programs worth thousands of dollars to help entice post-secondary graduates from moving elsewhere. Nova Scotia offers similar incentives and has been even more aggressive, helping to organize a job recruiting campaign with key employers that has headed out to Alberta and Ontario to persuade transplanted Bluenosers and others to head East.

The pitch is that there are good jobs for professionals at home. While they don’t pay the same sky-high salaries, there are other things to consider: affordable homes, no traffic jams, lower crime rates, no -50 C Arctic cold snaps. And you can stay close to family and friends.

The Opportunities Nova Scotia program was hatched after a construction company in Atlantic Canada complained that it spent $90,000 on advertising for building professionals over one year and didn’t get a single resume. Recruiting last fall was successful enough in places such as Mississauga, Ont. and Edmonton that another trip is planned for later this year in places such as Hamilton, Fort McMurray and possibly Vancouver.

“There are tons of professional jobs here that are going unfilled,” said Stuart Gourley, senior executive director of the Skills Learning section of Nova Scotia’s Department of Education. “The pitch is ‘Here is the difference in the purchasing power of the money. You can buy a very nice house here for $175,000 to $200,000.’ That won’t even buy you a trailer in Fort McMurray.”

The challenge is that Alberta is also actively recruiting, hawking high-paying jobs, low taxes and in some cases its own quality of life in smaller communities outside of major centres. Alberta is short hundreds of veteran engineers and technologists, from airport engineers to wastewater experts. To meet the demand, companies are seeking experienced staff in places such as the United Kingdom.

“We have hired everybody across Canada that we could possibly hire,” said Wendy Cooper, executive director of the Consulting Engineers of Alberta. “It blows your mind.” Cooper said they also face the challenge of retaining veteran engineers as the cost of living in Alberta rises and the hassle of living in traffic-choked Calgary or expensive Fort McMurray takes some of the bloom off Wild Rose country. “There are young engineers with, say, five or six years experience who have quit their jobs in Alberta and got a comparable job in their hometown in New Brunswick. Financially it was probably a good move for them.”

The Alberta government is actively involved in helping recruit doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals from other provinces. Recruiting teams employed by Alberta’s regional health authorities routinely attend job fairs at post-secondary schools in the West and in Atlantic Canada to net graduates and veterans.

“We are recruiting top management positions, pharmacists, registered nurses, health-care aides, medical radiation technologists,” said Carmen Filles, project leader of recruiting services, for the David Thompson Health Region in Red Deer. “We are really seeing results. But I think we are going to be dealing with workforce shortages for the next few years.”

Newfoundland and Labrador is also suffering a shortage of skilled labour, but not because of growth. Debbie Forward, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses’ Union, said nurses are being lured to other provinces, particularly Alberta, where the wages and benefits are better. “We are a prime poaching ground,” Forward said. “I don’t think we’ve done enough as a province to encourage our graduates to stay. It’s very frustrating, especially when you know that you need them here.”

A year ago, after meeting some Newfoundlanders working in Alberta, Premier Danny Williams likened them to “homing pigeons who want to return once jobs are available.” An oil refinery and nickel processing facility are planned for southeastern Newfoundland, pending regulatory approvals. The proposed Hebron offshore oil and Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectric projects are further away from development, but would need a huge influx of workers.

Health-care experts warn that governments should be looking for long-term solutions to fill important jobs. Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said the genesis of the shortage of health professionals was deep government cuts to post-secondary programs in the 1990s. Alberta is now short 1,400 registered nurses. Provinces would be better off if they graduated enough professionals to meet their own needs, she said. “The bottom line is we are not growing enough nurses here to replace those who are retiring,” said Smith, who moved to Edmonton from Ottawa more than 20 years ago. “What we need is long-term investment and political will.”

-with a report from CP

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