Lineups for jobless benefits are growing, led by a jump in Alberta.

In Alberta – the province most exposed to lower oil prices – the number of people applying for employment insurance surged 29.4 per cent in February, the second straight month of 20-per-cent-plus increases and the biggest rise since the recession.

Across Canada, EI claims, an indicator of the number of people who will soon become EI beneficiaries, grew 6.7 per cent as every province in the country registered more claims in the month.

It’s the latest sign the jobs market is not firing on all cylinders, particularly in provinces whose economies are closely linked with energy. Jobless rates in Alberta and Newfoundland are already rising, while the full impact of lower oil prices has “yet to show up in employment statistics,” the Bank of Canada said in its April monetary policy report. The price of oil, which has dropped from a high of around $100 (U.S.) last summer, closed at $57.74 on Thursday.

The EI numbers come in the same week the federal government released its budget, which balanced the books by, in part, reducing the size of the annual contingency fund and keeping the EI fund surplus higher than it needs to be. Some labour market experts said the priority should have been job creation – through more infrastructure spending – along with skills training and changes to EI so more people can qualify.

In Red Deer, Alta., where the number of EI recipients is a third higher than a year ago, “it’s gotten busier in the last couple of months,” said Shaune Fandrey, director at Career Assistance Network.

She’s seeing more experienced, long-tenured oil workers over the age of 50 now asking for assistance in looking for work. A large share in the energy sector say “they want out,” she added. “They’re tired of the booms and busts … and say they prefer to get off the roller coaster ride.”

In Edmonton, there are fewer job openings and more job seekers competing for them, said Ken Marsh, executive director of On Site Placement Services, which links people with disabilities with jobs in sectors such as retail and warehousing. “We find it’s more difficult because there are more people out there competing for the jobs that we would normally be looking at.”

Across the province, the level of EI claims is 72.9-per-cent higher than it was a year ago.

More people are already on EI. In Alberta, the number of those getting employment insurance rose 15.6 per cent in February from a month earlier – the fourth straight increase and the biggest jump in nearly six years, Statistics Canada said Thursday.

Edmonton has the country’s largest year-over-year growth in EI recipients among major cities, where numbers are 15.4-per-cent higher. In Calgary, they have risen 8.9 per cent from last February. Levels have fallen, however, in several Ontario cities including Kitchener and St. Catharines from a year ago.

More than half a million Canadians are on EI as nationally the number of recipients rose 2 per cent to 509,800. There are currently 1.3 million people out of work.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland will see the biggest hit from lower oil prices, the central bank said this month. Alberta’s jobless rate is already ticking higher, to 5.5 per cent last month from 4.5 per cent in January. In Newfoundland, it jumped to 13.3 per cent in March from 11.4 per cent at the start of the year.

Among demographic groups, the biggest monthly increase in those on EI was among men between the ages of 15 and 24.

Job growth will post “another poor performance” this year – after employment grew at the slowest pace since 2009 last year – the Conference Board of Canada predicted last week. It doesn’t see much improvement in the jobless rate until 2016.

“When you have a conversation with most business leaders, and I talk to a lot of business leaders, there’s still a bit of hesitance,” said Tom Turpin, president of staffing and recruitment firm Randstad Canada in an interview this week. “We got hit awfully hard in 2008 globally, and there’s still a bit of hesitance around risk … so there is caution, maybe too much caution at times, and that causes you to maybe not look as long-term as you could.”

Statscan does not track the number of people who have exhausted their EI benefits and haven’t found work, unlike in the United States.

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