Survey aims to address labour shortages

Growth of larger farms and agri-food companies in southern Alberta towns lead to growing communities


Reports on the death of prairie towns have been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

That’s true at least in the case of southern Alberta towns, which have populations that are stable and growing, in large part due to agriculture and food processing activity.

With that growth comes demand for labour. Seven partner groups in southern Alberta launched a study March 2 to investigate labour needs, labour availability and the challenges faced by businesses and job seekers.

Using an on-line survey combined with interviews and focus group input, regional representatives hope to identify areas they can explore to provide skilled employees to companies and businesses and better understand their own labour market strengths and weaknesses.

“In southern Alberta, where the economy has been very stable for so long, we’ve got booming towns,” said Peter Casurella, executive director of Southgrow, an economic alliance group comprising 24 south and central Alberta communities.

“Towns like Coalhurst and Coaldale are some of the fastest growing towns in all of Western Canada. Nobleford as well. All of those communities along the Highway 3 corridor have been booming. They’ve gone up 30 percent in the last 10 years or less.”

South of Lethbridge, towns along Highway 5, including Raymond, Magrath and Cardston, are also seeing steady grown, Casurella said, and others on the periphery have generally stable populations.

That’s not the case in other parts of the province, where the downturn in the oil and gas economy has caused economic hardship and in some cases a population exodus due to job loss in the sector.

“It’s different in southern Alberta. It might be because we’ve already gone through what other places are going through. We lost a lot of towns that became hamlets back in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Casurella said many farming operations in the region have become larger corporate entities and thus have evolved beyond primary production.

The irrigation system across the south has allowed crop diversification that has attracted agri-food companies including McCains, Lamb-Weston, Cavendish, Richardsons, Cargill, Maple Leaf and PepsiCo, among others.

“Right now we’re filling our skills gap primarily by importing people. It’s one of the reasons why we have a booming population. People move to southern Alberta for jobs,” said Casurella.

He added that the region saw “a little bit of a boost” in available labour from former oil patch workers who sought and found jobs, albeit not at the wages once typical in the energy sector.

“Our region is dealing with the problems of success,” said Coutts Mayor Jim Willett, chair of SouthGrow Regional Economic Development, in a news release announcing the study.

“A lack of labour supply continually shows up as one of the top issues for many of our 26 communities who are experiencing sustained growth in various sectors, particularly agri-food, energy and manufacturing.”

Trevor Lewington of Economic Development Lethbridge said in a news release that the regional workforce is one of the most youthful in the country primarily due to Lethbridge College and the University of Lethbridge.

Collaborating entities on the labour survey project include Southgrow Regional Initiative, Alberta Southwest Regional Alliance, Community Futures Alberta Southwest, Economic Development Lethbridge, Lethbridge College, Town of Taber and Vulcan County.

Each is providing funds, as is the Alberta Labour and Immigration ministry.

Casurella said money for these types of projects is important and possibly in jeopardy as the province undertakes cost-cutting measures to balance its budget.

“This government has some lofty goals as far as economic development in Alberta goes, but if we’re not able to stay in business, if we’re unable to keep working and doing this kind of work, it doesn’t get done. This kind of information is not available to help support the growth of the economy and achieve the mandate of the government itself.”

Balancing the budget and diversifying the economy can be conflicting priorities, he said.

“Results require investments. You cannot just balance the budget and all of a sudden the economy fixes itself. The infrastructure and projects that need to be done in order to support the diversification take investment. It’s a catch-22.”

The on-line job survey can be found at bit.ly/33cEuhy.

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