Young, educated Albertans fleeing the province for better opportunities

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As a long-time Calgarian and recent graduate of Sir Winston Churchill High School, young Mohammad Ali was excited at the prospect of working in Alberta’s energy industry after finishing his degree.

Doling out about $8,000 annually to pay tuition at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business would be well worth it, Ali thought, with hopes that his major in supply chain management would set him up for many job opportunities here.

Instead, Ali will head to the U.S. after he graduates this spring.

“I would have really loved to stay in Alberta, especially Calgary, it’s a really great place to live. And I was looking forward to maybe working in the energy industry here,” Ali said.

“But there just seems to be so much more opportunity for me in the U.S.”

With extended family in California, Ali has secured permanent residency and a work visa through a previous internship and is excited about a career in the U.S. after connecting with several interested recruiters.

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Ali is among a growing number of young Albertans who are fleeing the province to build their careers, according to a report released this week.

Once Mohammad Ali graduates from the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business he plans on leaving Calgary. Ali is just one of many Albertans fleeing the province for better job opportunities. Friday, February 12, 2021. Dean Pilling/Postmedia
Once Mohammad Ali graduates from the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business he plans on leaving Calgary. Ali is just one of many Albertans fleeing the province for better job opportunities. Friday, February 12, 2021. Dean Pilling/Postmedia Dean Piling/Postmedia

Representatives with the U of C’s Students’ Union say the province is suffering from a growing “brain drain” losing young, talented students to a combination of Alberta challenges.

The province’s energy industry continues to struggle amid thousands of layoffs and the recent cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Post-secondary students have also faced many growing costs, including tuition fees that have increased by seven to 10 per cent over the past two years resulting in high levels of student debt upon graduation.

And with vaccinations ramping up significantly in the U.S., students like Ali see that economy opening up much sooner than here in Canada, which isn’t expected to complete vaccinations until late September.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Alberta indicates that over one-third of students were either definitely or probably leaving the province once they graduate. And that number jumps to over half of students who are also facing financial challenges like food insecurity or cost of living.

“It’s becoming really tough for students to stay here,” said Marley Gillies, vice-president external for the U of C Student’s Union.

“Post-secondaries are a hub of innovation, they are supposed to contribute to a growing economy. But that can’t happen if students keep leaving.”

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Gillies explained students faced a seven to 10 per cent increase in their tuition over the last two years, depending on their program of studies, and many are expecting another hike this fall.

Although she still lives with her parents, Gillies is juggling three part-time jobs to pay for tuition and other costs. As a piano and vocal coach, she is giving music and singing lessons and works as a nanny along with her duties for the students’ union.

Gillies adds that paying off fees and accumulating debt is becoming even more difficult in a pandemic where students have had problems finding work while they study and after they graduate.

“Students are being hit from all angles. They’re being forced into debt and then they have to abandon ship, leaving Alberta for province like B.C. or Ontario, which have a lot more opportunity right now.”

Gillies will graduate this spring with a degree in political science and would like to work in public policy, but she’s not sure what her job prospects are in Calgary.

“I’m interested in municipal politics, and the upcoming civic election in Calgary. But I will probably have to do some volunteer work first to see if there’s an opportunity for a job somewhere down the line.”

Last summer, the U of C conducted a survey that found 31 per cent of respondents wanted full- or part-time jobs during summer 2020, but were unable to find paid employment. As well, 12 per cent reported they secured internships that were cancelled due to the pandemic and nearly 40 per cent reported being worried about their ability to pay tuition and fees for 2020-2021.

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Gillies said while most students understand the pandemic is temporary, many worry Alberta has been hit with a double blow for job prospects.

Quinn Stevenson, a fourth-year political science major who will graduate this year, says he has been applying for work in Calgary upon graduation for months but has not even been able to get an interview.

“It’s been really tough, I had hoped to do something here in Calgary, but the economy has suffered tremendously.

“I’ve been looking for something administrative to try and save up for law school maybe. But now I’m probably just looking at something in retail, which won’t pay much.”

Stevenson, who is also a proud member of the military reserves, is living on his own and doing his best to manage rising costs, rent and student debt.

“I love Calgary, it’s my home, I want to do everything I can to stay, but there’s just a lot of uncertainty right now.”

Demetrios Nicolaides, Minister of Advanced Education with the UCP government, said while post-secondary tuition in Alberta is comparable to B.C. and below the national average, the province is providing scholarship and internship opportunities to support students.

“Alberta’s government is investing $15-million over three-years to create 1,400 research-based internships to help Alberta students gain valuable hands-on work experience right here in Alberta.

“The new ten-year strategic plan we are finalizing will prioritize work-integrated learning, which is demonstrated to be highly successful in helping new graduates transition to careers and will strengthen the connection between education and jobs.”

eferguson@postmedia.com

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