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OPINION | In Calgary the roles was … however not anymore

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This column is written by Dave Robertson, a meeting moderator and writer based in Calgary.

Do you remember Calgary’s vision: great place to make a living, great place to make a life? Soon it could be, “They say Calgary is a great place to make a living, but I’ll just hop on Zoom from my Vernon cottage instead.”

In 2017, when it was still about personal interaction, I went to a customer meeting with a local agency boss. After driving around town, we sat in an empty conference room and waited for the meeting to start. Then our customers all showed up on the giant screen – they had dialed themselves from home. Back in the car, the boss said, “I think we won’t make this mistake again.”

Fast forward to 2020 and everyone is working remotely.

Hipster encoder designers bring their laptops to Tulum, Mexico. Bermuda, Barbados and Estonia offer extended tourist visas to remote workers. Cities like Tulsa, Okla. And Savannah, Ga. Even pay remote workers to become residents.

Old colleagues from technology and design firms in Calgary are temporarily renting winter spots in Kimberley and Comox to “test the fit”. I don’t think they’re coming back.

Write on the wall

Alberta’s economic brainpower has not yet seen the writing on the wall.

When Secretary of State for Employment, Business and Innovation Doug Schweitzer announced in September that Alberta would “beat provinces like Ontario and BC” in technology and innovation, it showed how naive the UCP is about the limitlessness of work today. Of course, this is a government that is still discovering the opportunities for economic diversification.

Schweitzer is not alone. Calgary Economic Development (CED) knows how badly we need to attract talent. In last week’s sobering economic outlook for 2021, however, CED President Mary Moran doubled her hope that tech companies would somehow fill Calgary’s vacant office space.

I hope CED didn’t woo Canadian ecommerce giant Shopify. A permanent work-from-home model was introduced last May.

What leaders like Doug and Mary (and Jason Kenney and others) miss is how remote working changes everything.

As the pandemic continues, companies become virtual entities floating around in the cloud and their brightest employees realize they don’t have to live near their employers. With a little negotiation, they can choose any location they want.

Alberta Minister for Employment, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer announced in September that Alberta will “beat provinces like Ontario and BC” in technology and innovation. (Todd Korol / The Canadian Press)

We certainly still have advantages.

There’s Calgary, a city ranked worldwide for its quality of life (and facing crippling budget cuts). We have easy access to an abundance of beautiful natural spaces (now with fewer parks and more coal mines). There is our public health system (which UCP members want to privatize). And the Kenney administration is all about high tech now (but can’t admit the AHS tracing tool isn’t as good as Trudeau’s app).

Meanwhile, BC Prime Minister John Horgan is creating a kind of workers’ paradise on our left coast.

Its economic recovery plan will fund the fight against COVID-19, provide abundant and affordable childcare, and improve British Columbia’s communities. It even includes targeted tax incentives for employers who actually hire more workers.

Ironically, it can do this thanks to an economy that, according to the Conference Board of Canada, is the best among the Canadian provinces.

What if more and more skilled Calgarians, frustrated with our weak economy and ridiculous partiality, moved to BC?

Worse, what if they use remote work to hold onto their jobs here in Calgary? Then Alberta takes a double hit – not only are we losing their skills, but because their provincial taxes are based on residence, so are their tax dollars.

Trust me – we really can’t afford to lose these people.

A tough battle

It was hard enough getting her here. In my agency days, I recruited research and design talent from other Canadian cities because we didn’t have (and still don’t have) enough people with knowledge of user experience and design research.

It was an uphill battle back then. Moving to Cowtown was simply unthinkable for many ambitious, talented people from Vancouver or Toronto.

Currently between 14 and 23 million skilled workers in the US are planning to move to cheaper cities. If so, the lower cost of living in Calgary and an accelerating drop in property prices could be very attractive. It’s a rare opportunity and we’d better not miss it.

Sure, technology incubators and virtual trade missions are still important, but the CED should revise its economic strategy to retain and attract distant workers. They may work for companies here or in other parts of the world, but they will choose Calgary as “a great place to have a life” as we protect and improve the things that make our city liveable, safe and successful.

CED can stay ahead of the curve by discovering why skilled workers are leaving Calgary and working remotely. I am sure they will say that they are concerned about the viability of our city or about cuts in our health and education systems.

But I think they will also tell us that they are exhausted from the political climate in Alberta with the increasing partisan noise and feeling of chaos. They are just looking for some peace and quiet.

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