The Alberta government stands to lose access to at least $148 million in federal job retraining funds unless provincial leaders reach a deal with their Ottawa counterparts in the next five calendar days.
The federal government says the provincial government must spend 80 per cent of $185 million it handed over in November for workforce development and retraining by March 31, or return that money to Ottawa.
The Alberta government intends to spend the $185 million on a new Alberta Jobs Now program, which the labour and immigration minister has yet to launch.
The provincial government has been negotiating with the feds since late 2020 to try and delay the launch of the Alberta Jobs Now program, which will cost nearly $200 million and relies almost entirely on extra funding the federal government handed over this year through the workforce development agreement (WDA)
"We have had positive conversations with the federal government about flexibility to use it in the most effective way possible because, we wanted to use it from a timing standpoint when the economy is opening up, not in the middle of the (COVID-19) second wave that we had," Copping told reporters at the legislature on Monday.
It's unclear how a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in the province will affect the program's timing.
However, Employment, and Social Development Canada wants the provinces to provide immediate access to skills training, on-the-job-training, employer-sponsored training, employment counselling and other aid for the unemployed, a spokesperson said in an email. Alberta's funds are part of a $1.5-billion infusion across the country.
"These are all things that can and should happen today so that workers, especially workers in hard-hit sectors, are ready to find and keep employment when available," department spokesperson Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau wrote on Wednesday.
The Opposition NDP has called on the provincial government to fund the Alberta Jobs Now program from its own coffers, should it lose access to any of the federal funds.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley says Alberta appears poised to lose the money, as it would be impossible to launch the program, hire and train staff, receive applications from employers or begin handing out cash within a matter of days.
"It's just not acceptable for [Premier] Jason Kenney to drop the ball, yet again, when Albertans need jobs now, not tomorrow, not next year, not maybe," Notley said last week.
The government first made reference to the Alberta Jobs Now program in the 2021-22 provincial budget, which was approved by MLAs in the legislature on Thursday.
A brief description in budget documents said employers will be able to apply for funding to hire and train new employees. The province forecasted spending $62 million on the program in the 2020-21 fiscal year and another $127.5 million in 2021-22.
During budget estimates meetings earlier this month, Copping said the program should create thousands of jobs for currently unemployed Albertans.
The province's jobless rate jumped to 11.4 per cent in 2020, up from seven per cent in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
The provincial budget projects unemployment will hover at 9.9 per cent during 2021, which was Alberta's unemployment rate in February.
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Neither Copping nor his office would provide more information about how much money had been spent on the new jobs program to date, when the program will be launched or whether there is a contingency plan, should the provincial government fail to reach a deal with the federal government this week.
It's not the first time the Alberta government has struggled to concur with the federal government over how and when to spend COVID-19 recovery funding.
It took the UCP government nine months and three proposals to reach a deal with the federal Liberal government about how to spend nearly $350 million earmarked for front-line workers during the pandemic.
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Last month, the Alberta government unveiled the critical worker benefit program, which is supposed to send $1,200 taxable cash payments to hundreds of thousands of workers in health, education, social services and some private-sector employees in grocery stores or driving food trucks. Three-quarters of the cost is federally funded.
It's a crowded market for Albertans job hunting outside their prior field of work, says Erin Wilkins, vice-president of Higher Landing in Calgary. The agency helps people market themselves for a career change.
About seventy per cent of her clients are moving away from oil and gas jobs, and are more committed than ever at pivoting away from the sector, she said.
Many unemployed professionals don't want to or can't go back to school for months or years, she said.
New government-funded retraining initiatives should include grants available for microcredentials, such as certificates, and programs that cover a portion of new employees' wages while they get up to speed with a new employer, she said.
"We've had a lot of companies, especially smaller companies that might not have the budget to retrain staff, they seem quite interested in the opportunity to get some type of a subsidy and then provide the on-the-job training for individuals," she said.
Many workers have transferable skills, but they need help adapting them to a new field, she said.
She said there's too much focus on retraining Alberta workers for hi-tech careers right now. Not everyone has the interest or the aptitude for that sector, she said.
"It's really looking more at people as individuals and determining where they can go, rather than trying to take an entire population, like the oil and gas sector, and trying to just retool them into something else, full stop," she said.