Red Deer region’s unemployment rate soared past 10 per cent in March, and this month is likely to be even grimmer, says the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce.
“April’s unemployment numbers, by all indications, will be even worse than the figures released by Alberta Labour,” said chamber executive director Rick More.
The Alberta Labour Force Statistics released on Thursday say Red Deer region’s unemployment rate hit 10.2 per cent, up from 8.6 per cent from a month earlier.
It is the highest unemployment rate among the province’s seven economic regions and highlights central Alberta’s economic vulnerability.
“When times are prosperous, a lot of weaknesses become hidden,” said More. “During this global pandemic, we truly understand where our strengths and weaknesses lay.”
For central Alberta, those weaknesses include a dependence on a narrow range of employment opportunities, led by the oil and gas sector and followed by trade and health care.
COVID-19-related restrictions have also shown how vulnerable jobs are in other important parts of the area’s economy, including culture and recreation and accommodation and food services.
Red Deer’s stagnant population growth during the oil and gas downtown is another sign of its dependence on that sector, More said.
He points out that since 2015, Red Deer’s population has only grown by 195 people, while Lethbridge’s has grown by 6,678 and allowed it to take the title of Alberta’s third largest city.
The Lethbridge-Medicine Hat region had the lowest unemployment rate at 5.2 per cent, according to Statistics Canada’s numbers.
Among the province’s other five economic regions, Calgary had the second highest rate at 8.7 per cent.
Alberta shed 117,100 jobs — 43,500 full time and 73,600 part time — last month. Accommodations and food services industries were hardest hit, losing 43,700 jobs.
More remains optimistic that central Alberta will bounce back. Red Deer College’s transition to a university and the planned hospital expansion send a positive message.
“The news of the (Trans Mountain pipeline) continuance and the province’s announcement of a $2-billion job creation investment will ease some of the pain,” he said.
As well, the area’s proven ability to host major events, such as last year’s Canada Winter Games, bodes well for its future.
More said the “under-utilized” Red Deer Regional Airport needs a big financial commitment to help lure trade and business investment.
Work also needs to be done on removing red tape for businesses and to polish the area’s image.
“Perception is reality, so our image of social and criminal negativity must be a big priority…,” he said.
“There is no way we should not be the third largest city in Alberta again.”
The region will hopefully get a boost from a $2-billion accelerated construction plan announced by Premier Jason Kenney on Thursday.
The plan more than doubles the $937 million in the original capital budget. About $410 million will get pumped into transportation projects, with an additional $60 million set aside for pothole repair.
Fast forwarding construction spending will bump up the 2020-21 capita budget to $8.1 billion from $6.9 billion.