Alberta Employment Counsellors Shift From Headhunting To Coaching Jobless Workers

Alberta Employment counsellors shift from headhunting to coaching jobless workers

The Canadian Press
May 10, 2009

CALGARY Less than year ago, Bruce Cameron was run off his feet trying to find workers for thousands of vacant jobs.

Today, he's run off his feet trying to find jobs for thousands of workers.

It's another strange instance of Alberta's boom economy gone bust.

In recent years when the economy was humming, Alberta employers put up billboards and offered generous incentives in an effort to attract workers. But that has all changed.

“It's kind of like two sides of a coin,” said Cameron, a business and industry liaison officer with the provincial government in Calgary.

Instead of hosting seminars on how to find enough employees, he's taken on the new role of coaching the unemployed about what to do next.

The liaison officers “help employers when they're going through adjustments like they are right now, but six months ago or a year ago they were really on the front lines in terms of helping employers find people,” explains James Frey, spokesman for Alberta Employment and Immigration.

It first became apparent to Cameron and fellow staff last fall that they couldn't continue as normal, helping employers attract workers. They had to instead focus on helping workers who were losing their jobs.

“When we first got into it, the feeling I had was we could be facing a tsunami here,” said Cameron.

Labour statistics have been grim across Canada for months. The latest figures, released Friday, show unemployment continues to rise in Alberta.

It's now at six per cent, almost a full percentage point higher than the month before.

Roughly 20 per cent of calls to the office of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business are now from employers having trouble making ends meet, former Alberta director Danielle Smith said in a recent interview.

“They're very stressed, either because they have to lay off staff or because they are trying to access financing and finding it very difficult to do that.”

She said those businesses considering layoffs are spread across many different industries, from lumber mills to warehouses and dentist's offices.

Cameron said the liaison officers try to be proactive, contacting employers as soon as they hear about potential layoffs through media coverage or other means.

“We try and make immediate contact and advise the employer we'd like to help them out.”

They bring along practical information such as how and when workers can apply for Employment Insurance, and what should be included in a severance package. They also provide some comfort, something Cameron said those who have just lost their jobs really appreciate.

“We try to deal with personal aspects of going through a layoff and how to deal with the difficulties of that reality on a personal level,” he said.

They also encourage those who've lost their jobs to keep a positive outlook, Cameron said.

Some workers can feel blindsided by a layoff, and Frey said they're fully aware of the emotions it may stir up.

“It's a pretty traumatic experience, a lot of people equate it to the loss of a loved one. Losing your job, that's a pretty tragic circumstance.”

Hundreds of business and industry liaison officers work out of locations in 59 communities across the province. Cameron said his office has so far contacted about 40 companies and run a half dozen seminars for as few as five and as many as 100 workers.

Despite the downturn, the liaison officer's former duties haven't been totally forgotten, said Cameron.

There are still a number of companies desperately seeking workers, even within the downturn. The food services sector, landscaping and construction companies, accounting firms and transportation companies are all hiring, he said.