By Cole Parkinson
Westwind Weekly News
While no one knows when the pandemic will pass, Cardston-Siksika MLA Joseph Schow is optimistic about how Alberta will bounce back.
With politicians heading back to the legislature next month, Schow is excited to get back to work and start moving past the pandemic.
“We are going back to session here in the month of February, so we should expect that to last into the late spring, possibly even into the summer depending on how many bills the government decides to bring forward. As deputy house leader, I had an opportunity to kind of be part of those conversations to a degree and I’m looking forward to a lot of great pieces of legislation and continuing to keep promises that we made to Albertans,” he said at the Municipal District of Taber’s regular meeting on Jan. 11.
While Schow is preparing to head back to Edmonton, he’s been busy around the riding talking to consistent. The main topic continues to be the pandemic and Schow understands the continued concerns being brought forward.
“I’ve also had the chance, leading up two this meeting here, to visit with a number of constituents. I believe what the most pertinent issue on everyone’s mind right now which is the COVID-19 pandemic and steps going forward,” continued Schow. “I have heard from lots of my constituents already with concerns about the government’s approach, things being seen and needing to be evaluated, certain pieces of data that are or not being released, and looking forward to some of your questions on that.”
One of the biggest issues continues to be economic recovery when the pandemic ceases. Schow though sees plenty of opportunity for Alberta once that does come to fruition.
“To me, it’s making sure we have the economic recovery that we’re projected to have in this province. We are set to lead the country in economic recovery over the next couple of years. A number of financial institutions have projected that and we are certainly on that course. What that requires is a workforce and it requires the availability of new people entering the workplace to help supply those new and emerging investments with the workforce they need. That’s why I have been very excited about what the future holds for the province of Alberta,” he added. “The price of oil is going up. It’s certainly can be a bit rocky at times, but very positive trends there. Between the investment and hopefully us getting out of this pandemic sooner than later, I think there’s a very bright future for the province of Alberta and the country of Canada in 2022.”
Another portion of that comes down to strengthening the workforce and providing incentives for people to work in Alberta. A concern was raised from council around commercial driver licenses. They said the new mandates leave the agriculture sector vulnerable.
“A couple of things that I am seeing that are a bit concerning. One is the requirements for commercial drivers licenses,” explained Coun. Brian Hildebrand. “I foresee an issue with maintaining enough drivers available to fill positions for transportation, particularly in the ag sector. The procedure to get a driver’s licence is becoming very onerous, especially for a lot of the ag workers. It’s expensive and as soon as they get a license, they are very susceptible to poaching from other industries. That’s quite a concern for farms and agricultural transportation.”
Hildebrand continued to touch on issues around workers that had to leave the country due to the pandemic.
“The other agricultural workforce situation that I am seeing is there are a number of workers that left the country when the November restrictions came in place. Trying to get out of the country prior to those travel restrictions. Here in January, we are going to have more in the middle of the month,” he continued. “I’m rather concerned about some of our migrant, and even citizen workers, that have connections. Whether it be Kansas, Texas, or Mexico. A number left for the winter because of the restrictions and I’m very worried that a portion of them will not come back.”
Schow responded by explaining why changes to commercial driving licenses were needed.
“So, the first one with regards to the driver training. I have said this a number of times — this MELT (Mandatory Entry-Level Training) program is one that we have to implement to some degree. It’s an international standard and given the vast majority of our trade goes south of the border to send trucks down and bring them back, we do need to have this training program. The last I head, I know the U.S. has changed some of their requirements, so that might have an effect on our program, but I think one of the unintended consequences that you so wisely addressed was the idea of poaching,” stated Schow. “You’re looking at a former Class 1 driver. I can tell you as a Class 1 driver my main priority was stability for my family. Now, I didn’t drive Class 1 for a very long time and ended up going with Class 3, but I can tell you that if I get a Class 1 and have an opportunity to do some seasonal work here and in spring and the fall, or get a full-time job — I’m going to take the full-time job. My job was to help feed my family and pay my share of the bills. I can’t fault people for looking at those opportunities that are more consistent in their lives.”
Schow though did touch on the fact it leaves many in the ag industry vulnerable.
“With that said, it puts the ag industry in a really difficult spot because the cost of obtaining a Class 1 drivers license now is, to a degree, prohibitive. We are looking some programs that might enable people to get their Class 1 driver’s licenses with some financial assistance. I have talked to a number of ag producers in the area, and I represent Picture Butte, Vulcan County, and Cardston County, and come their respective seasons, it gets very busy there and the demand for drivers is huge,” he said. “We’ll continue to look at that because we cannot put ourselves in a situation where come harvest we don’t have the drivers or we push our drivers beyond what I think would be legal or reasonable limits.”
Schow also responded to the comments about workers leaving the country.
“In terms of migration, a lot of those rules are federal and they may drive people out of here. We have an absolute requirement to make an environment here in the province of Alberta that is conducive to new people coming into the province and working. We have started that by recognizing trade credentials from other provinces and jurisdictions. Now, that doesn’t necessarily apply to temporary foreign workers, but there are a lot of pieces here we have to work with to make sure we are not strained for workforce come when we need it most.”
“The workers who are travelling out of the country, a lot of them are citizens. In fact, most of them are citizens,” replied Hildebrand.
Another topic brought forward was around housing and how that is another factor to bringing workers to the area.
“We’ve talked about ensuring the workforce and in the ag world we often have folks who are entering a workforce. Or that those skill level job that they want to be involved with and therefore they ned housing. So the government recognizing housing being important, but we’re seeing a lot of the housing projects end up in the cities. But rurally, that becomes a big issue as well,” stated Deputy Reeve Tamara Miyanaga.
Despite some of these concerns, Schow was still optimistic about Alberta’s future.
“I would argue the situation in Alberta is better than other jurisdictions in the country.”