Field of dreams

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Here’s a little Statistics Canada definition for you: “Interprovincial migration is the movement from one province or territory to another involving a permanent change in residence. A person who takes up residence in another province or territory is an out-migrant with reference to the province or territory of origin, and an in-migrant with reference to the province or territory of destination.”

The key part of that? “Involving a permanent change of residence.”

It’s an important little piece of statistical information, because those who move permanently often move for work, and they often move because they have the kind of skills that make them an attractive catch for an employer somewhere else. 

And that’s important, especially when there is a looming skills shortage in this province, and the provincial government is trying desperately to prove to its oil industry partners that there are enough people here who can do the specialized work needed to build Hebron oil project modules.

The most recent Statistics Canada data on out-migration from this province for the first three months of 2012 shows there’s been a dramatic upswing in the number of people moving away permanently.

More than 4,000 pulled up stakes and left during January, February and March, with 2,765 of those people going to Alberta alone. When you look at the number of people moving into this province, 2,500 or so, the difference leaves us short some 1,500 residents over three months alone.

That’s a pretty tough number to swallow, especially when these are supposed to be some sort of boom-times where the economy is performing well, and when, strictly based on the paper of oil-driven economic numbers, we’re performing better than many of our fellow provinces.

Right in the middle of the whole debate, though, is something that may well be a critical fallacy.

There is a feeling, at least in government, that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians away are somehow a sort of flexible employment pool, skilled workers who are willing to give up their stable, long-time Alberta or Saskatchewan careers to move their families back here at the drop of a job hat.

The belief seems to be that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are just biding their time at far-off jobs, poised and willing to swap their ongoing jobs for a short-term construction project of a few years or less.

And certainly there are some that will, among them those who miss this place and their families so much that even short-term opportunities are worth the risk of a job vacuum after the latest oil project is built.

The question is whether there are enough of those.

Because the problem is, nothing is that simple. There aren’t an endless number of skilled tradespeople off working in the bullpen and just waiting for the call. You can’t forget that Newfoundlanders away are making friends, putting down roots, their children are going to schools and joining sports teams, and the work they’re doing now may be more consistant, higher-paying and more long-term than anything similar here.

A bird in the Alberta hand certainly seems to be worth more than similar work that’s still off in the Newfoundland future.

W.P. Kinsella, in “Shoeless Joe,” wrote the line “If you build it, they will come,” about a farmer who kept having a dream about building a baseball field in his cornfield, and that, if he did build it, a group of spirits of shamed baseball players would come to play nightly games on his small corner of land.

The farmer built the field, and the players came to play. Many people may remember the film version better: “Field of Dreams.”

Well, even if we get the field, there are no guarantees.

It’s not as clear that Newfoundlanders with skills who are working away will return to fulfil the current Tory administration’s dreams.

And as the Alberta economy strengthens even faster than ours, the continuing pull of the worker-hungry Prairies may make the Tories’ current position — that we have the skilled trades necessary to complete the maximum amount of Hebron work — impossible to defend.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Statistics Canada

Geographic location: Alberta, Hebron, Saskatchewan Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • David
    June 27, 2012 - 12:04

    Danny lowered the provincial income tax rates just so that this province wouldn't lose out on all the working commuters filing their taxes in Alberta instead of Newfoundand. I'll bet that comes as a copmplete revelation to all you Danny worshippers who counted that as one of his greatest "Newfie miracles". Nope....an act of pure, pragmatic greed of government.

  • Cyril Rogers
    June 27, 2012 - 11:47

    I get to talk to many Alberta commuters nowadays and many are not interested in working here at home for a variety of reasons. Many don't like the long commute but the benefits from working in Alberta's oil patch far outshine the lower wages and short-term nature of most projects that we do have ongoing. I am not sure what the answer is, but the figures are troubling and point to a steady decline in this province with resources to provide so much more. The government's myopia with its mega-projects like MF is certainly a factor in the stagnation of our economy, as they seem bereft of any progressive ideas for sustainable long-term development.

  • Pierre Neary
    June 26, 2012 - 09:00

    Very interesting column. The lure of big money and turnarounds out west is certainly what is keeping rural NL going in my opinion. Alot of NL'ers are not returning as you say. I'm still not convinced about the shortage of skilled workers in NL all the same. Here's an interesting idea. How about matching the wages in NL to the wages out west?