Aboriginal work force could save Alberta from labor shortage

There are many ways to tell a story but using numbers is the last way most people would think of.

There are many ways to tell a story but using numbers is the last way most people would think of.

For Kristen Cumming, a career consultant and teacher at University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, numbers have helped her gather a picture of the labour market in Alberta. She presented her information as part of an Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) workshop held Oct. 9 at the Kinsmen Community Centre.

Engaging Our Alberta Workforce was the theme of the workshop and more than 90 people attended from central Alberta communities and students of the Maskwacis Cultural College.

Cumming, who gathers population statistics on the labour force, provided important data to attendees: Alberta shows strong economic growth with a predicted annual increase of 2.4 per cent in the labour market, but the province’s labour supply grows at 1.9 per cent.

“We don’t really know where our limit is in terms of economic growth,” she said.

There is an expected shortfall of 120,000 workers by 2021 and Cumming wants people to be aware of the consequences. “What we have to think about is not whether Tim Hortons is open 24 hours or not. We have to ask ourselves if hospitals are open 24 hours or not.”

With this potential shortage in the workforce, Cumming says people need to look at the province’s aboriginal workforce. She provided some statistics on the labour population for consideration. “We focus on aboriginal populations because their demography is so different.”

Children 14 years and under representing the Alberta population:

• Non-aboriginal: 16.5 per cent.

• Aboriginal: 28 per cent.

“The monster gap is in that under 14 number,” says Cumming. “And so that is important to conceptualize.”

Youths 15 to 24 years:

• Non-aboriginal: 12.9 per cent.

• Aboriginal: 18.2 per cent.

She believes there is an assumption that whatever the socioeconomic position from one generation — when they were younger — is similar to a current generation.

Seniors over 65:

• Non-aboriginal: 14.2 per cent.

• Aboriginal: 6 per cent.

Cumming then calculated the median age for Alberta; where half the population is older than the other half:

• Non-aboriginal: 41-years-old

• Aboriginal: 28-years-old.

She then presented statistics coming from First Nations communities in central Alberta and data shows a baby boom over recent years. Cumming feels aboriginal communities will play a big part in the labour force but companies must consider how they employ people.

“Today we know that are working in a model that is increasingly part time to temporary, casual, contract, season, project based. We call it the contingency workforce,” explained Cumming.

A recent survey in Toronto, Ont. shows the contingency workers account for 50 per cent of the workforce and in the United States the number is similar, she said. The workplace has become less stable for employees.

Cumming suggests employers must be mindful that employees have a family outside of the workplace that they must consider.

First Nations people make up nine per cent (360,000) of the Alberta population. With such a disproportionate composition of population, she feels the best way to work with the aboriginal workforce is to build meaningful and sustainable jobs.

“We’re looking to find ways that match supply and demand in a way that strengthens communities, communities’ families,” explained Cummings.

Bridging the communication gap

Wayne Reindeer, life skills co-ordinator for literacy programs at the Maskwacis Cultural College, enjoyed seeing such a large group of people attending the workshop. He feels this will open up communication and opportunities for everyone involved.

There is an assumption from Hobbema residents that businesses will only hire Maskwacis Cree for temporary work, added Reindeer. He feels Cumming’s presentation reminds First Nations what is available to them. “I liked her performance because it convinces our guys…These people want to hire them and they have a chance at a career.”

“Aboriginal people need to be utilized and need to get out in the workforce in the next decade,” added Josh Littlechild, another attendee.

“If they’re looking for the labour market then their definitely looking in the right spot,” he offered.

Many Maskwacis Cree do not realize that employers are eager to work with the First Nations, says Reindeer.

He suggests employers and aboriginal people should be included in the planning process. Reindeer enjoyed Bruce Cutknife’s presentation (see related article online) as it helps the Cree realize more of their history.

“We’re out there trying to figure out what the outside workforce needs of our people,” explained Reindeer.

“Everyone’s guessing but nobody’s talking to each other,” he added.

He also feels neighbouring communities to Hobbema should make an effort to learn more about their culture. He used to teach a native studies program at the Ponoka Composite High School 25 years ago and was surprised at how little people knew of Hobbema.

Littlechild suggests the best way for aboriginal labour force and employers to learn more about each other is to continue workshops such as Ponoka’s. “Adhesive cohesion, what’s going on right now.”

“We have to be involved in the planning as well,” added Reindeer.

“It’s the lack of understanding from both sides,” said Littlechild.