As skilled workers migrate west, some fear EI changes could make things worse

HALIFAX – There’s nowhere else Jessica Marche and Grant Connors would rather live than in Newfoundland.

But next month, the young, educated couple will pack up their belongings and head to Fort McMurray, Alta., joining the many others born, bred and trained on the East Coast who are choosing to hone new skills on the other side of the country.

And as the latest numbers from Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey indicate Atlantic Canadians are being lured west by high-paying jobs, controversial changes to the employment insurance system are heightening concerns the trend will worsen.

Alberta’s 69 per cent employment rate was among the highest in Canada last year, second only to Yukon, according to the latest tranche of data from the survey, released Wednesday. Newfoundland and Labrador came in dead last at 50.7 per cent.

“We do want to stay here, but unfortunately we’re not,” Marche, 24, said in a recent interview from St. John’s, N.L.

Both Marche and Connors are natives of Newfoundland and Labrador with degrees from Memorial University. Marche grew up in Labrador City, a small mining town near the Quebec border in western Labrador, before moving to St. John’s to pursue degrees in English and education.

Connors, 23, spent his youth in Tickle Cove, a hamlet on the island’s east coast that’s “pretty much a ghost town now.” He graduated last May with a degree in commerce.

The couple, who’ve been dating for more than a year, would be content to settle somewhere in Canada’s most easterly province. But Marche says full-time teaching jobs are hard to come by and prospective employers in Fort McMurray have already baited Connors with six-figure offers, making the higher cost of living less worrisome.

“That’s very hard to turn down, especially for a 23-year-old with no experience,” said Connors, whose parents also live and work in Fort McMurray.

Indeed, of all the provinces, Alberta registered in the 2011 survey as having the largest proportion of workers — 7.6 per cent — who were living in a different province five years earlier.

As more young people leave the region for western opportunities, it’s only a matter of time before seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada follow suit, said Nova Scotia Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner.

“I’m nervous as hell,” said Cuzner, a vocal critic of federal employment insurance reform, which has sparked protests throughout the region. The changes, he argues, unfairly target Atlantic Canada’s seasonal workers, including fishermen.

The region’s premiers have also spoken out against the new rules, saying they were implemented in January without proper consultation.

Under some of the new measures, those who frequently claim EI need to prove they’re actively seeking work. Workers must also accept a job within 100 kilometres of their home as long as they are qualified and the pay is at least 70 per cent of their previous salary.

“Families are sitting down and going through this and wondering if they stay or if they pull up stakes,” said Cuzner.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied the changes take aim at seasonal industries or require workers to leave the region to find a job.

David Campbell, an economist based in Moncton, N.B., said it will take time before the effects of the changes are known. But some rural businesses have seen job applications increase since the changes came into effect, he said.

“From what I’m hearing, so far the changes have led to an opening up of the labour market in rural areas,” said Campbell, president of Jupia Consultants Inc., an economic development research firm.

As for the so-called brain drain to the West, Campbell said Atlantic Canada should focus less on what’s being lost and concentrate on attracting newcomers.

“I don’t think we need to put the primary focus on trying to keep our young people here,” he said. “If they want to see the world, we should encourage that and hopefully many of them will find their way back here.

“But we need to make sure that for every one highly talented person that leaves the region, we’re attracting two talented people from somewhere else.”

Marche and Connors say they hope to be among those who return east someday after spending a few years in Fort McMurray, a largely transient, oilpatch-fuelled community about 4 1/2 hours north of Edmonton.

“I don’t mind Fort McMurray … but it’s not my ideal place to live,” said Marche. “Everyone works overtime, everyone’s overworked. They just want to make their money and go home. A lot of people are away from their families.”

It won’t be the first move west for Connors, whose family relocated to Nunavut about 10 years ago for work. He said the money earned there helped his parents finance his university education in Newfoundland without any student loans.

Indeed, it appears they were on to something: along with the Northwest Territories and Yukon, Nunavut outstripped the provinces in terms of workforce mobility in 2011, with 17.3 per cent of its workers having lived elsewhere five years earlier.

Connors said he’s hopeful the experience and paycheque earned in Alberta will eventually lead him to his home province once again.

“I mean, what’s not to come back here for, right?”