by Tim Skelton
The European and American economic front may be looking a little shaky lately, but just as we reported a few months ago with Australia, there is another English-speaking (well, most of it is) and welcoming country that appears to be riding out the storm rather well: Canada.
All right, so there are those chilly winter months to deal with, and perhaps fewer opportunities to relax on the beach with a cold beer after work as there might be Down Under. But what you get instead is a great lifestyle, and some of the friendliest and most dependable people on Earth to work with (and I’m not just saying that because some of them are my relatives). You get a land where people carry guns because they like to hunt for their dinner, rather than because they are paranoid about safety. And lest we forget, you get a country that features among the top two or three best places to live in the world on every list ever made. Even if they do sometimes expect you to go outside and barbecue when it’s thirty below.
Beyond some of the more visible benefits, Canada also offers political stability and democracy with a social conscience, and universal healthcare. And perhaps more importantly, an economy that is still in the market for skilled staff and has largely avoided a double-dip recession.
Unlike the United States, the UK, most of Europe and Japan, Canada somehow managed to escape being dragged into the worst of the global financial crisis of the past years and has emerged (relatively) scot-free. So what has been its secret?
Much of the answer lies in the way the country’s banking system is set up, and it relies on one of the many admirable and typically Canadian traits: prudence. In contrast to the America’s disaster-prone banking system that also seems to be tightly interwoven with the political set-up, Canada’s industry is far more tightly regulated. Most importantly of all, the system of mortgage lending there is far more conservative than the virtual free-for-all that happened south of the border in the 1990s and in the early years of this century (and was imitated to some degree in the UK), wherein banks ecstatically lent more money to homeowners than they could ever hope to repay. That madness led to the sub-prime disaster and the near collapse of the world’s financial markets.
In Canada on the other hand, you cannot over-mortgage your property. If you are borrowing more than 75% of its estimated value, you have to purchase insurance for the bank. And if a homeowner does happen to default, it is not just their home they risk losing – the banks are entitled to seize their other assets and income as well. Moreover, since there is no tax relief on mortgages, there is far more incentive for borrowers to pay off their debts as soon as possible.
There are other major differences. As Canada only has a relatively small number of banks, compared to the many thousands that operate in the United States, they tend to be larger and less exposed and less vulnerable to a run of bad debts. With that level of protection behind them, and little exposure to the toxic sub-prime mortgages being loaned out in the US, it is no wonder the country’s biggest financial institutions got through the crisis so well. Thanks to economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, Canada’s government had enjoyed budget surpluses for over a decade before the last downturn hit, meaning it was able to afford stimulus packages without borrowing. As a result of this good housekeeping, while the rest of us face draconian cuts in public spending as governments attempt to dig themselves out of gigantic holes, Canada’s economy has only had to make a few tweaks here and there.
Of course, being a country full of vast mineral resources hasn’t hurt Canada’s cause any. Possessing large quantities of commodities like oil that the rest of the world is crying out for has got to be good for the balance of payments.
You needn’t take my word for it - the numbers stack up as well. According to official figures from Statistics Canada, unemployment nationwide is stable and around 7.5%. Compared with a year ago, there are 129,000 more people in employment. Even at the peak of the last recession, unemployment barely touched 8.5%.
It should be borne in mind of course that Canada is a pretty huge place, and that the numbers above are an average. The regional jobs figures are not the same across the board, and some provinces are doing rather better than others. Unemployment on relatively tiny Prince Edward Island is quite alarmingly high - around 12.2%. In Quebec the figure is 8.4%, while in Ontario it is 8.1%. But at the other end of the scale, largely thanks to its oil industry being in rude health, Alberta has the fewest people out of work anywhere in the land, with an impressively low 4.9% of the workforce looking for jobs.
In very general terms, the economies of Western and Eastern Canada have fared differently because they have long moved in different spheres. The West is kept buoyant by the energy sector, while blue–collar Ontario was built on a more traditional manufacturing industry, which was badly affected by the global recession, and specifically by the downturn in the car industry. In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, Ontario’s manufacturing sector shed 32,000 jobs.
But there is good news in the form of a potential trickle-down effect from elsewhere. A 2009 survey by the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimated that the country’s oil and gas industry as a whole would be investing more than one trillion Canadian dollars in the coming 25 years. Most of this will be seen in Alberta, where booming oil sands developments – exploiting what is thought to be the world’s third-largest deposits of crude oil – have resulted in a shortage of skilled labour. But the impact of this will be felt elsewhere, as the insatiable thirst for oil technology, products and services means opportunities for suppliers from British Columbia to the Maritime Provinces.
“Canada has done very well,” Ken Nickel-Lane, Associate Director at Air Energi Canada confirms. “Even in the recession of 2008/2009 our economy was strong and stable due to the banks. In our [oil and gas] industry, even though there was an 18-month slowdown, it was really no more than a blip on the radar.” From an oil and gas perspective, he explains, the sector is also afforded some protection from the economic rollercoaster as the work tends to involve very large-scale, long-term projects, which are less vulnerable. It means that while some of the smaller companies may have had a few problems, others – particularly Imperial Oil (Canada’s largest oil company, majority owned by ExxonMobil) - saw it as an opportunity to expand their businesses, and were able to take up the slack.
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, as Dane Groeneveld, Regional Director for North America & Canada at NES Global Talent explains. “[Canada] had a tough run early in the global financial crisis, with many projects stalling or being scrapped,” he says. “However we are seeing [the country] bounce back rather well, in a similar fashion to Australia, due to the vast natural resources that they have. The whole energy security push from a United States/Canada perspective is underpinning the oil sands and shale gas project developments. There are also a healthy range of infrastructure projects and mining continues to forge ahead in a market where commodity prices remain high in contrast to historic levels.”
The view from Hays Canada reveals a similar story. “In 2011, 80% of employers reported that staff levels had remained consistent or had increased in the last 12 months. Furthermore, 40% of employers expected an increase in headcount this year while only 11% anticipate a decline [Hays Canada Salary Guide, 2011],” a spokesperson told Nexus.
How about a job then?
All this is very impressive, you may be saying. But you’re more than likely also asking: so where are all these jobs? And where can I get one? More importantly, is there much of a demand for (European) expats on temporary contracts, or is the market as far as expats are concerned more for those looking to move permanently?
Toby Ball, a Director at The Highfield Company, says while Canada seems to be doing well in the mining sectors, it has not (from what his company have seen) been that busy regarding the recruitment of expats. But he is able to add a more positive note to this. “The signs are that this will need to change in the coming months, as the requirement for experienced staff increases and the local market does not have the resources,” he says.
NES Global’s Dane Groeneveld outlook is even more positive. “Realistically the immigration system is well set for contract workers coming across from Europe, and the market need is huge. There are predictions of a 70,000 shortfall in technical workers through until 2017, hence we are seeing a lot of companies securing blanket Labour Market Opinion (LMO) capabilities, and otherwise preparing to source talent from Europe and the broader global community,” he says.
Hays Canada also agrees that the availability of candidates remains an issue for many employers. Their research showed 77% of companies citing the availability of suitable/skilled candidates as the biggest challenge in attracting top talent. “Some 43% of employers would be willing to sponsor an overseas candidate – the vast majority for full time roles,” they told us.
As for the split between permanent and contract postings, Toby Ball believes it is a mix of both. “The mining and oil/gas projects tend to be more contract focused, where as construction often takes more permanent relocations. I think as Canada is a sought after location a lot of people are interested in relocating there,” he explains.
According to Ken Nickel-Lane, whether a contract is offered as permanent or fixed term also depends largely on the client’s culture, and on whether they are project-driven, and working on one single large project. “If they are focussed on one thing at a time they might hire staff on a temporary basis on contracts of a year or three,” he points out. “But a larger company may be working on a whole range of projects at any one time. They can afford to take on permanent staff, because when one project comes to an end they can simply transfer them to another site. From my perspective [as a recruiter] it’s certainly interesting to watch the dynamic in the market.”
In more specific terms, are there any particular skills that are currently in demand? Hays Canada recruits for a full spectrum of sectors and offers the wider picture. “There is a good demand for white collar construction and property management professionals as a result of the booming real estate market in Toronto and Vancouver. Mining professionals are also in demand in more remote areas,” they told us.
NES Global Talent is more sector-specific, but reports that oil & gas, mining, and infrastructure all have massive needs in both professional and trade level roles. “This extends from research and development scientists, through engineering, construction, contracts & procurement, operations and maintenance,” Dane Groeneveld says. “While we are less able to comment on sectors we don’t specialise in, we do get the feeling that some of the associated health disciplines, finance and IT are in high demand,” he continues.
“As we focus on construction I would say ‘in demand’, in general no,” The Highfield Company’s Toby Ball adds. “As always it is very much for specific, skilled roles.”
Go West? Or East?
Where are Canada’s big ongoing projects at the moment? Thanks to the aforementioned oil sands and heavy oil industries, the biggest openings in the sector are, as predicted, mainly in Western Canada. “We are seeing ExxonMobil (Imperial Oil) developing Kearl/Syncrude and Hebron, which are deemed 2 of the 3 largest developments in their portfolio (the other being PNG LNG),” Dane Groeneveld says. “Apache and Shell are both proposing to build Canada’s first LNG export facilities in BC, and there is Total E&P who have the CA$9 billion Joslyn North Mine Project to get underway in 2013.” He adds that Nexen also have significant projects, and confirms that the usual suspects - Shell, BP, Suncor and CNRL - are all busy in Canada. “Major projects are all that we hear of for Canada at present,” Dane continues. “The Apache and Total projects are exciting new developments that are going to create large demands for expatriate talent.”
“Right now, things are quite robust and strong,” Air Energi Canada’s Ken Nickel-Lane confirms. “For us there are three or four main projects going on, plus a number of other things.” But he points out that although the demand is heaviest in the Western Provinces, there are jobs elsewhere. “In Newfoundland and Labrador there is a fundamental skills shortage,” he explains. “There is a preference for local labour, but if you can find a suitable candidate you look further afield. I liken it to the ripples when you throw a pebble in a pond: first you recruit locally, then you move out to other provinces in Canada, then you look to other countries like the United States or to the UK, where there is a very large pool of talent.”
“Presently the key hiring regions for us include Alberta (Calgary and Edmonton) and Newfoundland for Oil and Gas, and Vancouver and Toronto for mining,” Dane Groeneveld adds.
Finding a posting first and having a contract before arrival is clearly the key way to go, and will naturally determine where you end up. But for those looking to emigrate and who perhaps don’t already have a job lined up, the choice of location is harder. But the variation in skills demands geographically means some forethought is required. “Pay close attention to your own personal needs,” Ken Nickel-Lane advises. “Don’t just pick the largest urban centres and move there as they may not be the right choice for you. I’d advise people to try and arrive with a sponsored job opportunity first.”
Even within Western Canada, and within oil and gas, the number one hotspot, there are differences. In Alberta the focus is on oil sands, but the jobs are split between Fort McMurray (the hub of the region where the actual mining takes place), and Edmonton and Calgary, where most of the administrative offices and design centres are. Over the border in British Columbia the focus is more oil shale.
Money and the work/life balance
Once you’ve made the decision to go, it is always nice to hear if there are any special packages being offered. And it seems there are. “Clients are offering a range of packages that include such benefits as relocation allowances, annual home travel, cost of living allowances, foreign service premiums, tax differentials, vehicles and school fees,” NES Global’s Dane Groeneveld says. But even if these things aren’t available, the attractiveness of the lifestyle is enough for some, as The Highfield Company’s Toby Ball observes. “As Canada is very much a sought after location, you will find people tend to take a drop to get here,” he says.
Once in Canada, it offers a good work/life balance and a high quality of living. Moreover, having a relatively robust economy means it offers more job stability than many places, and getting in is virtually problem-free. “Immigration is fairly straightforward and it’s a great country where you can get anything you might need when you arrive,” Dane Groeneveld points out. “Many people love the lifestyle, schooling and health available. It’s a good culture in which to raise a family or enjoy retirement, so there is something that appeals to everyone.”
If there is a drawback to living in Canada, it is costs, which are relatively high (compared to the US at least) - largely on the back of the strong Canadian Dollar, which at the time of writing was ‘enjoying’ parity with its American counterpart. “The cost of living is up there with Europe in many respects, and not as affordable as parts of the US,” Dane Groeneveld confirms. “But is a great place to live as far as sport, food, and geography are concerned.” And lest we forget, there are all those wide-open spaces, as Toby Ball reminds us: “Canada has half the population of the UK, yet is the second-largest country in the world,” he says.
A dirty business?
There is one small blot on Canada’s copybook that slightly tarnishes its image as a land of fresh air, moose and Mounties. The Alberta oil sands may be lucrative, and may indeed be the only realistic answer to coping with the falling supplies of oil from more traditional sources. But the business often finds itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. Environmentalists complain about the industry ravaging the pristine landscape, and the energy intensity of extraction means you have to use almost as much oil to get the stuff out as you actually yield. Campaigners often lead calls for boycotts. But how much of this international media attention is hype?
“There’s certainly no shortage of debate,” Air Energi Canada’s Ken Nickel-Lane admits. But he believes oil sands gets painted unfairly compared to what goes on in other markets, especially the US coal industry. “They cry foul, but their industry is many times more polluting,” he points out. There is also a move away from surface mining towards underground recovery, which reduces the footprint, plus remedial action to restore an area once it has been mined. “I’ve been past places that have been left to recover for five years and you wouldn’t know it had ever been disturbed in the first place,” Ken adds.
The big freeze
And yes, there are those cold winters to deal with, which can be off-putting to some. But as one Canadian I know well (I ought to, he’s my brother-in-law) likes to say: “In Canada there is no such thing as cold weather; only bad clothing.” It may get down to –20°C or colder on a typical winter’s day; you may have to bring your car battery indoors at night or thaw it out before your car will start; and the hairs in your nostrils might freeze up if you inhale too sharply. But take a leaf out of the Canadians’ book: revel in that deep covering of snow rather than getting concerned about whether it’s the right kind to stop the trains from running. “The cold winters don’t seem to bother most people,” Toby Ball says. “We have a Canadian girl in our office who says that when she was living back there, at 5.30 on a Friday everyone would grab their ski’s and head to the slopes.”
Canada is indeed a land where, when the going gets tough, the tough go out and play ice hockey. “Just make sure you have some warm clothing and prepare to drive carefully on the ice and snow,” Dane Groeneveld advises wisely. After all, if the weather was truly that awful, then wouldn’t all the Canadians be heading east to live with us, rather than vice versa?
Thanks to all the following companies for their help in compiling this feature:
Air Energi: www.airenergi.com
Hays Canada: www.hays.ca
The Highfield Company: www.thehighfieldcompany.com
NES Global Talent: www.nesglobaltalent.com,
SNC Lavalin: www.snclavalin.com
The Writer - Tim Skelton
Dutch-based freelance writer Tim Skelton has spent the past 22 years living outside the UK, and has been a regular contributor to the Expat Network's Nexus magazine since 2004. As well writing on expat issues, he uses his engineering background and experience gained at the Dutch environment agency to comment and write about a variety of energy and environmental matters, and is always happy to wax lyrical about his personal favourite subjects - travel, food and beer. When not appearing in airline magazines, national newspapers and lifestyle magazines from Playboy to GQ, he has also written two books: Luxembourg - the Bradt Guide (2008), and Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers (2010).