OPINION | Alberta could be looking at a massive brain drain

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.

For years now, Alberta’s oil and gas industry has warned about the consequences of it being starved of capital, both because of the diminishing global outlook for fossil fuels and the relatively high carbon content of the ones Alberta produces.

But an even bigger crisis is brewing for the province when it comes to its stores of human capital.

Alberta is in the early days of what could prove to be a massive brain drain, one that will chew into its tax base, skew its demographics, and undermine its ability to build a more diversified economy in the future. And for some reason, the current provincial government seems intent on making it worse.  

The canaries in this particular coal mine are the doctors who are packing up their practices and moving west in search of a less hostile environment.

A recent survey conducted by the Alberta Medical Association revealed that 42 per cent of the province’s doctors were considering leaving, and some have already pulled the trigger.

Take the Moose and Squirrel Medical Clinic in Sundre, where five of the eight doctors have provided written notice that they’re leaving their practice and the province by the end of April 2021.

Waging war

They are far from alone, and the government is clearly worried about them leaving, given that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta recently proposed a policy change that would require doctors to “stagger” their departure from the province.

Alberta’s doctors aren’t the only group that the UCP government has decided to wage war against lately.

There are the teachers, who have been put squarely in the line of fire when it comes to COVID-19 without much in the way of support or shielding.

There are the post-secondary institutions, which have had their funding cut and been forced to lay off thousands of people as a result.

There are Alberta’s health-care workers, who will bear the brunt of the government’s recently announced plan to save money by outsourcing jobs and services.

And soon, the UCP will open a new front with the broader public service, where it will be looking for layoffs and wage reductions. 

All of these groups are staffed with highly educated and mobile people, and they all may start looking for the exits.

If they do, they’ll probably be looking west, where both major political parties in British Columbia have announced plans to create a $10-per-day daycare system (the B.C. Liberals would raise that to $20- and $30-per-day for higher earning families). That could save the average Albertan family thousands of dollars per month, and while some of that would surely get chewed up by the higher home prices in B.C., it would still add to the province’s considerable allure. 

Many holes to fill

If those professionals, who are in demand in communities across B.C., do decide to move west, Alberta will have to find a way to fill the holes that will create.

This presents obvious problems for the near future. But the damage might be even worse down the road, as a growing number of parents begin to see that their kids would be better off somewhere else.

A few weeks ago, I asked my Twitter followers whether they’d encourage their own kids to stay in Alberta or look for brighter opportunities somewhere else. And while Twitter surveys are inherently problematic for any number of reasons, the results still spoke loudly.

Of the 1,456 people who voted, 83.9 per cent said they’d encourage their kids to leave the province — and many added comments detailing how they’d already done that. 

If Albertans do leave, they’ll probably be looking west, where both major political parties in British Columbia have announced plans to create a $10-per-day daycare system. (Google Street View)

The UCP government’s attacks on doctors, teachers, and post-secondary institutions have surely exacerbated this potential flight of human capital from the province. But this isn’t a new concern.

Back in 2016, former AIMCo CEO Leo de Bever warned that the black cloud hanging over the province as a result of the oil price crash and ongoing pipeline project delays was starting to chase people away.

“I think what a lot of people are saying is, ‘this is going to take too long — there’s no appetite to improve things quickly.’ So a number of them are pulling up stakes, and I think they’re likely to be the people who have the most options — the ones that are attracted to other jurisdictions that are more amenable to change and bringing in new ideas,” de Bever said. 

Ironically, that used to be Alberta.

A de facto fiscal transfer

It wasn’t that long ago that the brains were draining into Alberta. In the mid-2000s, as oil and natural gas revenues swelled the provincial coffers, educated professionals from across Canada came to the province in search of economic and professional opportunity.

Between 2001 and 2006, Alberta saw a net-increase of 28,000 post-secondary graduates, while its labour force added 160,500 people from other parts of Canada. 

That influx of people was a de facto fiscal transfer to Alberta from the rest of the country — one that never seems to get included in the arguments made by those stoking grievances about the province’s fiscal contributions to Canada. But no matter, because those numbers are in the process of being reversed.

Where Alberta once benefited from other provinces paying to educate people who worked and paid their taxes here, now we’ll be returning the favour for places like British Columbia and Ontario.

This flight of human capital will have real costs for Alberta, and they’re ones that Premier Jason Kenney’s government should be particularly nervous about.

Ironically, if it decides to proceed with its plan to create an Alberta Pension Plan, it’ll be undermining its solvency from Day 1. That’s because pulling Albertans out of the Canada Pension Plan will almost certainly accelerate the outflow of people from the province, with younger ones being the most likely to abandon ship.

That will in turn skew the province’s demographics older, and turn what was a theoretical asset for any Alberta Pension Plan — more workers than beneficiaries — into a liability. 

Steps to be taken

This brain drain can be plugged, if the government is willing to take it seriously. Its recent decision to restore some of the funding and incentives that it cut from the tech sector in 2019 was a small step in the right direction.

But as the Calgary Herald‘s Chris Varcoe noted in a recent story, “the government shouldn’t think its work is done; that’d be like congratulating the arsonist after they’ve put out the fire.” 

In order to prevent a growing exodus of skilled labour from the province, the government will have to stop lighting new fires as well.

That means putting an end to the conflicts with teachers and doctors, shutting down the War Room and the public inquiry into the energy sector’s enemies, and actively fighting separatism rather than flirting with it.

That will also mean restoring funding to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, doing more to reduce the cost of childcare, and ensuring that the province’s cultural institutions are being supported. 

In other words, it will require Jason Kenney to govern in ways that are unfamiliar to him. But if he doesn’t, his legacy may end up becoming the hundreds of thousands of Albertans who will leave the province for better opportunities and a brighter future somewhere else.

Kenney, who is from Ontario and spent the bulk of his political career there, might even end up being one of them.


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