The city of Grande Prairie, Alta., is rising to the enviable challenge of being in the midst of an incredible growth spurt, fuelled by the strong local economy. While the oil and natural gas sector continues to face labour shortages, with total hiring requirement ranging between 125,000 and 150,000 jobs over the next decade, the tight labour market is particularly challenging for communities such as Grande Prairie, Alta., that act as service centres for the industry.
Located about a four hour drive northwest of Edmonton, near Alberta’s border with British Columbia, Grande Prairie is home to more than 60,000 people and an important hub for companies developing the Duvernay and Montney areas. With unemployment currently sitting at less than half the Canadian average, the city needs to be creative about attracting and retaining workers. Bill Given has helped Grande Prairie grow and prosper for more than a decade, first as city councillor and, since 2010, as mayor. He shares the city’s strategies for bringing families, entrepreneurs and businesses to his community.
Q: How would you describe the economic health of Grande Prairie?
A: Very active and robust – almost explosive. There’s so much opportunity that the biggest challenge in our economy is meeting the demand for everything, including professional services, health care, retail and restaurants. If you leave the city for a week or two, when you return you’ll always find something new that’s been built or opened. This vitality shows the community is successful and going places.
Q: What’s driving economic growth in your region?
A: There’s no doubt that growth is largely driven by the natural resources sector, particularly oil and gas. The natural gas industry has a long history here and we’re central to a number of conventional oil fields. We’re also sitting on large unconventional natural gas reserves that are being explored. From our perspective it’s interesting to watch the broader discussion about fracking. In Grande Prairie it’s something with a long history that we’re comfortable with, and leading practitioners are developing the technologies right here. Many people have family and/or friends working in the sector, and everyone understands it’s not only important for the industry but to our economy.
Q: Statistics Canada data shows unemployment in Grande Prairie is well below the national average. Are you in the middle of a labour shortage?
A: Year-to-date unemployment is at 2.8%, so yes, we’re in the middle of a labour shortage. We have employers in all sectors from retail to health care to natural resources looking for skilled employees. There are help wanted ads across the community and even radio stations are advertising job openings along with business ads. Companies are not just marketing products and services, they’re marketing themselves because there are so many jobs to be filled. The good thing about all that employment diversity is that it means jobs for families – for each spouse and for teenagers.
Q: What job skills are in greatest demand?
A: It’s hard to pinpoint the area of greatest demand, as growth is historically quite balanced. Between 2008 and 2013 the largest growth area was business, finance and administrative at 16%; followed by health occupations at 14%; and primary industry, including oil and gas, also at 14%. There’s no question natural resources are a pivotal part of the economy and driving other sectors. As more people come to Grande Prairie we will need more doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, bankers and office staff.
Q: How is this labour shortage reflected in family incomes?
A: It’s had a significant impact. When there’s a labour shortage, demand for workers brings increased wages. When you look at the metrics, median household income in Grande Prairie is $90,151, whereas the median household income for all of Canada is $61,072. Not every job pays $30 per hour, but compared to other places in Canada a similar job will likely pay a higher wage here. But the streets are not paved with gold. Don’t expect to walk in and get a job that pays well if you have no skills in that sector.
Q: How many jobs have been created in Grande Prairie over the past few years?
A: 8,000 new jobs between July 2009 and July 2014, mostly in fulltime employment. This represents annual employment growth of about 3.3%. We may see some acceleration from changes in the temporary foreign worker program. In 2013 Grande Prairie had nearly 600 temporary foreign workers. Taking that many people out of the workforce has a substantial impact and has caused some businesses to re-examine expansion plans. We need to encourage Canadians to explore communities where the jobs are. If more Canadians came to Grande Prairie we’d have less need for temporary foreign workers.
Q: How many jobs do you expect will be created over the next five years?
A: Anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 new jobs, which is in line with the growth we’ve been seeing historically.
Q: What types of jobs are being created?
A: Across the board. Employment growth is balanced and underpinned by the resource sector. Grande Prairie is the natural hub for northwestern Alberta and northeastern B.C. As the centre of the region we support a surrounding population of 260,000 people. This has an economic and social impact on the services we offer. A new $620-million hospital is being built here and is the largest capital project in Alberta at the current time. A post-secondary college for health-care professionals will be integrated with the hospital as well as cancer treatment radiation vaults which were previously only available in Edmonton and Calgary. We’re getting this large facility not because of Grande Prairie’s population of more than 60,000, but because of the large regional population we support.
Q: Are those coming to Grande Prairie temporary workers or new permanent residents?
A: Over the years there have been successive waves of immigration. Many people come to stay because there are so many fulltime jobs and due to the well-rounded community. The natural resource sector here is not the type that runs a camp-style setup. People who move here initially live in apartments and eventually own their own home.
Q: Where are they coming from?
A: The largest source, approximately 3,500 people from July ’13 to July ’14, is inter-provincially from across Canada. We also have a significant number of immigrants for a community of our size, approximately 300 from July ’13 to July ’14. There are about 150 different nationalities represented in our community, including many francophones from outside of Quebec. We have a Hindu Cultural Centre and Sikh Temple along with churches of many other denominations, and even a cricket club. All of those things highlight a diversity that might not be expected in Grande Prairie.
Q: Grande Prairie has topped the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s list of top entrepreneurial cities several times. To what do you attribute your success?
A: People come here for opportunity. They have a pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and can see where things can be done better. We appreciate the recognition for the city, but we recognize that it was won by the hard working people who live and move here.
Q: What are you doing differently to attract young families?
A: We’re conscientious about ensuring there’s lots to do outside of working and learning hours. We’re one of the only communities in Canada where you can surf indoors at a recently opened $110-million recreation centre, visit a $34-million dinosaur museum currently under construction, then go dinosaur hunting – all within an hour’s drive. Many are also surprised to learn that we have the second largest public art gallery in Alberta.
Q: How has the influx of workers changed your community?
A: It’s not a new phenomenon. Grande Prairie is 100 years old this year. When it was still a village promoters were already calling it a city. They had a vision for what was possible. Today we see a diversity that has given us a more cosmopolitan feel. But the biggest thing people bring with them is a sense of adventure. There is something to be said for those who take a risk and move to a new community or country – these people have spirit. It’s that regular infusion of adventurers and risk takers that keeps the vibrancy and explosive nature of the city alive.
Q: What challenges does this pose for your city?
A: Our biggest challenges after labour are housing and infrastructure. We’re working to meet the demand with new housing developments popping up regularly. And, because we have more children aged zero to four years than people over age 65, we continue to work with the provincial government to advocate for schools. A new high school opened this fall and three additional schools are currently under construction.
Q: How are you managing these challenges?
A: We struggle to balance the demand for infrastructure with what’s reasonable in terms of property taxes, as does any local government. The provincial government realizes that with thousands of people moving to Alberta, they need to invest in schools, hospitals and roads. It’s up to us to advocate on behalf of Grande Prairie to ensure those investments are made here.
Q: What would you tell a person considering a move to Grande Prairie?
A: Do your research before you come here. Be realistic about finding housing as it’s a tight market and be realistic about the work you’re qualified for. Yes, we have high labour demand, but it doesn’t mean those with no experience can jump into a job they’ve never done before. And explore all the avenues to becoming a true part of the community: reach out to your neighbour, make friends and engage with people outside of work. Do that and you’ll find Grande Prairie a very welcoming place with plenty of opportunity.
Q: What does it mean to be mayor of such a successful city?
A: I’m honoured and privileged because the decisions I’m involved with now will influence the future of the city for the next 100 years. And I’m happy to be faced with the challenges of growth versus the stagnation or decline that others may be experiencing. In Grande Prairie, it’s about planning for a great future.