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'Have to do something': Workers react with fear and hope to Alberta is Calling campaign

Health-care workers are in high demand in both Alberta and B.C. The Alberta government is asking Vancouverites to consider the move, but nurses' unions from each province say neither province can afford to lose any more staff.
Calgary is one of Alberta's cities where Premier Jason Kenney is trying to attract workers from outside the province to move to.

What would it take to move a Vancouverite to Alberta?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is hoping lower house prices, shorter commutes, higher incomes and a front yard could be enough.

In a video for the recently launched talent recruitment campaign titled Alberta is Calling, inspirational music plays as the camera pans over Edmonton and zooms in on Kenney down below.

“I’m standing in front of something that a lot of folks in Toronto or Vancouver don’t get to see very often, the yard of a single family home,” he says in the video.

Describing the price of a detached home in Canada’s two biggest cities as “out of reach,” Kenney is asking Torontonians and Vancouverites to consider their options when it comes to employing their skills elsewhere.

According to Bryan Yu, chief economist for Central 1 Credit Union, these features meant to attract workers to live in Alberta are nothing new. 

“I think Alberta has always been relatively attractive, at least relative to some parts [of Canada] due to higher income,” Yu said. “And that's still the case.”

So why is Kenney launching this campaign now? 

It could have something to do with what appears to be an interprovincial migration that’s seeing more Albertans leaving than coming.

From 2020 to 2021, the number of people who moved from Alberta to B.C. was more than double the number of those who moved to Alberta from B.C., according to Statistics Canada. 

However, even with more Albertans choosing to call B.C. home, the number of expected jobs in each province still hovers around the same number. From 2021 to 2031, B.C. estimates it will have 1,004,000 job openings. Meanwhile, Alberta estimates that between 2021 and 2030, its job openings will be only slightly greater, at approximately 1,206,600, according to a government report.

With job growth hovering around the same number, Yu says he thinks most Vancouverites and Torontonians will recognize Alberta is Calling for what it is: a sales pitch.

“It's a marketing campaign,” he said. “I think we recognize that it's unlikely to have a major impact on attracting individuals to Alberta.”

B.C. workers unnerved by campaign

While Yu may not be too concerned about these efforts by the Alberta government, some workers in B.C. are having a different emotion evoked by the campaign.

According to the Alberta is Calling job board, some of Alberta's most “high demand” jobs are in health care.

Vice-president of BC Nurses’ Union Adriane Gear is concerned about the campaign's implications for health-care workers in her own province.

The situation is dire across Canada in terms of staffing shortages and dangerous working conditions, Gear says. She said she's worried that Alberta’s higher wages and marginally better conditions could be enough to convince the few nurses B.C. has left, to make the move.

Historically, Alberta’s wages have grown to outdo its fellow provinces. In a UBC study analyzing interprovincial wages from 1997 to 2013, researchers found that by 2013 Alberta’s median wage was close to three dollars more than other large provinces, such as Ontario and B.C.

Using Ontario as a benchmark, the study states that Alberta’s wages grew by 23 more percentage points than both B.C. and Ontario in the time frame. 

For health-care workers specifically, numbers from the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions note a higher maximum income for registered nurses in Alberta for working fewer annual hours than those in B.C.

Registered nurses in Alberta earn, at most, approximately 123 dollars more every year for working almost 30 less hours. Though the difference may be small, it’s enough to make Gear concerned.

“A campaign like Alberta is Calling [makes] the hair on the back of my neck actually stand up because, oh my goodness, we cannot afford to lose any more nurses,” Gear said.

Upon returning from a recent trip to Creston, Gear said she was speaking to municipal leaders who told her about the small border community of Elkford, B.C., where nurses are already commuting to work in Alberta every day.

“I don't think that's a big scale of numbers,” Gear said. 

“But in those really small communities that are losing their emergency services, like Elkford, it would really help them if the working conditions [in B.C.] were better, so they can attract those nurses back to work in the community where they actually live.”

She hopes the B.C. government can seize the opportunity to improve working conditions for nurses in the province, retain those still working here and perhaps entice those abroad to help fill the holes in the province’s health-care system.


Loved ones mean more than wages

The problem, and likely one of the reasons for Kenney’s campaign, is that Alberta doesn’t have any nurses to spare either. 

Kathy Howe has been working as a nurse in Alberta for about 27 years. The executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses says if 25 ICU nurses from Vancouver or Toronto suddenly decided to uproot their lives and move to Alberta, “that’d be just jackpot.”

“I'm not particularly optimistic it'll happen,” Howe said. 

“But if there's somebody there who goes, ‘Hey, the grass looks greener, I've always wanted to go, here's a good chance.’ Bring them on. We'd love to have them.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Howe says trouble in Alberta’s health-care system has been brewing for a long time.

“It's been bad in the rural areas for a long time and harder to recruit people to go live in rural areas, but it's just gotten worse and worse,” she said.

“It's the registered nurses where we're struggling the most.”

But with health care hurting in both provinces, both Howe and Gear are testaments to how difficult it can be to get workers to leave their home provinces.

Gear grew up, was educated in and still lives on Vancouver Island to be close to family and friends. Similarly, Howe, still based out of her hometown of Calgary, was educated in Alberta and has only ever moved around within the province for work.

“I think that's one of the things, probably, that kept me in Alberta more than anything else, is that's where my life was and so this worked well for me,” Howe said.

Gear expressed a similar sentiment. With lots of work always available to her at home, she never felt the need to leave.

“I live in a beautiful part of the world,” she said. “Once I settled, met my husband and all that stuff there was no need to [leave].” 

Having friends and family close by is one of the factors that Yu says can influence some people’s decisions to relocate more than economic factors can.

“People still move for various reasons, it's not only [about] the economic implications or the homeownership implications,” he said.

Other factors like the political leanings of a province or how easy it is to access nature can influence somebody’s decision to move as well, Yu added.

Overall, Yu says the campaign is likely trying to attract young workers to Alberta who haven't established roots.

“I think they're trying to attract the younger demographic, those who are starting their careers looking to build housing or buy housing,” he said.

But even those new to the job market, Yu says, could have their pick of provinces.

“I think the campaign… probably highlights some advantages,” he said. “But at the same time, labour markets are very tight across Canada right now and people can really make a choice of where they want to be.”

Can B.C. afford to lose workers?

What happens if Vancouverites do decide to answer the call? It could spell trouble for B.C., according to Yu.

“I don't think any place can afford to lose people that much right now,” Yu said. 

“When we think about these kinds of campaigns, highlighting the quality of life and affordability, a big part of it also speaks to the lack thereof in certain other markets like Vancouver."

Gear may be worried about a slightly higher wage attracting nurses to Alberta, but Yu is focused on the housing supply component that he says will only get worse with time.

“The key there is that if we want to attract labour and maintain our existing labour force, we need to address those issues around ensuring we do have more affordable housing across the spectrum,” he said.

Without improvements to the cost of living in B.C., Gear also remains worried that the targeting of young people through this campaign could actually be successful.

“Particularly young people that aren’t attached to communities because their kids are there; I really worry that we could lose many more nurses to our neighbouring province,” she emphasized.

At home in Alberta, Howe says she acknowledges Vancouver and Toronto are also in tough spots but she’s happy to see her government at least trying to do something about the staffing shortages in her community.

“We just can't keep doing things the way we've been doing them and think something different is going to come along,” she said.

“We have to do something different if we want different results.”