On a cold, wet March afternoon, Alberta’s new Minister of Employment and Immigration, Thomas Lukaszuk, cut a giant ribbon and officially opened Edmonton’s newest income support office. As he toured the new office, with its birch desks and tables, glass walls and rows of new computers, he met with clients who were using the computers to apply for jobs, spoke with others who were looking through job postings, and shared stories with employers who were taking résumes and looking for employees. And to think this brand new space was once known as the welfare office.
That Alberta Works office reflects a philosophical shift that has transformed welfare in the province. Though some clients may need financial support, many more are in the offices to look for jobs and meet with employers, who are just as likely to be clients themselves.
The shift from providing financial support to providing access to independence has been a long journey.
Before the reform of the early 1990s, a welfare office consisted of chairs lined up against a wall, and those chairs quickly filled each morning with people who were depressed, out of money and out of luck. Staff of those former offices remember a time when many offices were infested with bugs, and staff stayed well away from it all behind plexiglass walls. At the time, welfare cases in Alberta were high for a population of 2.5 million people, closing in on the 100,000 mark. The economy had weakened and unemployment was high.
The government began a bold initiative to reform welfare and redefine what it meant to Albertans.
The first step was a rate reduction. The theory behind the cut was to make work more attractive than welfare, so the amount people were receiving each month was in some cases severely reduced. Critics saw the reform as mean-spirited, but the province had a plan – to move people from entitlement to independence. The government saw its welfare clients as an untapped labour force and made steps to tap that potential.
In 1997, the federal government transferred control for active job training for Employment Insurance clients to Alberta through the Labour Market Development Agreement. This transfer allowed Alberta to identify and respond to the needs of all unemployed Albertans and those looking for new careers. This created efficiency and aligned with the province’s responsibility for education and training.
That March afternoon, Lukaszuk walked over to a corner of the new office. There were a few round tables and rows of catalogues and binders filled with information about training programs, schools and careers. In one of the chairs sat a man in the unmistakable uniform of the oilpatch – tan-coloured Carhartt overalls. He flipped though a course catalogue from a technical school in Edmonton. On the table in front of him sat a binder open to career information for information technology. Lukaszuk recalled that not too long ago welfare offices did not provide information on careers.
A new approach
When Lukaszuk became Minister of Employment and Immigration in January 2010, he came with experience in the low-income portfolio. In 2001, as a new MLA he had headed the committee reviewing benefits provided to low income Albertans. In November of that year, Lukaszuk’s committee recommended streamlining income support, introducing stronger incentives for income support clients to get back into the workforce, and offering support to people living in low income but not receiving income support. By coincidence, 10 years later, Lukaszuk is the minister responsible for the program he helped shape.
Every province has welfare. Every province has labour market needs. What made Alberta unique in its reform of the welfare system was combining those two elements. Pieces of the support network now offered to people in low-income were once scattered throughout several ministries. The training element was housed in Advanced Education and Career Development. Social assistance was provided through Family and Social Services.
In mid 1999, a reorganization of those elements into one ministry – Human Resources and Employment – was a radical idea, but it made sense: people in need could still have their requirements met, but also be given information on training, jobs and self-sufficiency.
Today, Employment and Immigration handles income support, training for employment, as well as occupational health and safety, employment standards, labour market development, labour attraction, and immigration. The common thread of the ministry is investing in Albertans and in Alberta’s workplaces to create an environment where people are contributing to and sharing in the province’s prosperity. During his tour of the new Alberta Works office, Lukaszuk met a man from a large grocery chain who was there for a job fair – employers were now clients, too.
Meeting today’s challenges
For years, the task of connecting Albertans to sustainable employment was relatively easy. The oil and gas sector took off, and Alberta was flush with cash, jobs and people. In the mid-2000s, employers started feeling the strain of the boom. All over Alberta, in big cities and in rural towns, “help wanted” signs were everywhere. Employers were cutting hours, closing early and crying out for workers. The Alberta government did not waver from its goal of connecting income support clients to the job market.
To build the labour force, Alberta started targeting under-represented groups. Immigrants, Aboriginal people, older workers, people with disabilities, youth and women in non-traditional roles were all identified as potential sources of labour that needed to be developed. That meant developing training programs and finding employers who were willing to develop their skills.
Fast forward to the fall of 2008 when the world markets tumbled and with it, Alberta’s economy. In the two years since the economic downturn, income support cases have risen, including the demand for training. Before 2008, income support caseloads were in the mid-20,000 households range. After the economic downturn, those caseload numbers crept up to a high of just over 40,000; in recent months, they have slipped to the mid-30,000 range. Instead of providing employers with workers, the focus is back to looking for jobs for workers.
Today, Alberta Works offices are one-stop shops for people to find information on income support, training, the job market and talk to employers who are hiring. The Alberta Works office is now a place for hope and a place to build a future.
In one afternoon, Lukaszuk saw the results of 20 years of reform. Where a welfare office once meant desperation and hopelessness, this new office represents change – both internally and externally. Internally, staff see clients as untapped potential in the labour market. If a client is in immediate need, staff have the tools to meet those needs and help them chart a course for the future. Externally, people needing money or jobs are able to come to an Alberta Works office for options. The gap between people working and people not working is closing.
Lukaszuk knows there is room still for development, but as he walked around the new office and witnessed the wide variety of clients served, he knew Alberta had moved onto the right path.
Sally Stuike is a public affairs officer with the Ministry of Employment and Immigration.