I remember when I finished university in the late 1980s, many of my friends and colleagues had to leave here in order to find jobs on the mainland. Then, when I started my business in the early 1990s, the cod moratorium was underway and everywhere you looked there were people looking for jobs or starting a retraining program with the hope that they would land some sort of meaningful, long-term employment.
Here we are 20 years later and boy, has that tide turned.
“Help Wanted” signs? I never saw the likes of a “Help Wanted” sign when I was growing up, but you sure see them now.
Business owners know this change in the tide only too well. Sixty-seven per cent of business owners who responded to our 2014 Economic Outlook Survey indicated they were concerned about not finding qualified workers to fill positions. I know there are skeptics who look at the published unemployment numbers in the province and wonder, how can we claim to have a labour shortage? It’s hard to reconcile the two scenarios.
The reality is there are a whole lot of reasons why we have a labour shortage that is quickly becoming a crisis. People receiving income support are not able to fill all the jobs we have as many are seasonal workers who need to be available when that fish plant or tourism business reopens each season.
Some live in a geographical area that is not close to where there are job openings. Some don’t actually have the skills that are necessary.
Even if we engaged every resident receiving income support in this province in the labour force it will still not fix our looming labour requirements.
Adding to this is our aging population, which is perhaps the biggest threat to economic success and the very existence of this province. The average age of our population is 44 — this is older than every other place in Canada. By 2036, it is anticipated that the average age in this province will be 50, and more than 30 per cent of the population will be over the age of 65.
If that’s not grim enough, add to those stats the fact that more people are dying every year than are being born here, and that we’ve lost more than 70,000 people to out-migration over the years.
Put all that together and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize we do not have enough Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to fill the jobs that all those retirees are leaving.
The solution? We need more people to call Newfoundland and Labrador home. In our submission to the provincial government during consultations last fall into its Population Growth Strategy, the Board of Trade suggested a number of ways to grow the population in Newfoundland and Labrador.
High on the list of options is immigration, the most practical and immediate solution to increase the province’s population. We need to improve our record on attracting and retaining immigrants to this province, and that includes finding ways to encourage temporary and project workers to stay here.
The recent decision by the federal government to impose a moratorium on restaurant workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program needs to be lifted immediately, as this program is a stepping stone for immigrants to become permanent residents.
Immigrants are generally younger, helping to lower our average age. They typically have more children than we do, improving our birth rate, and they are usually well educated, bringing valuable skills which they pass on to local residents, thereby improving our local skill set. We recommend the province set and meet a target of attracting 5,500 newcomers each year for the foreseeable future.
We also have to retain our own, especially our educated youth, to keep them from moving and settling outside of here. We need programs that enhance the productivity of our current workforce through a variety of means, including up-skilling, and we have to offer attractive salaries and benefits to entice ex-patriots to return home.
And how do we foster international student and graduate retention? If students are coming to Newfoundland and Labrador to pursue post-secondary education, how can we make sure they stay here, create new and innovative enterprises and raise families here?
While all of these suggestions have merit, without a strategic plan they remain simply a list of options. A Population Growth Strategy is a massive undertaking, challenged further by a need for fiscal restraint, which is created in part by the very lack of population we have to contribute to our tax base.
We are looking to the province to announce the next steps of its Population Growth Strategy. It must be innovative and creative. It must acknowledge that we are competing globally for talented people and it has to seek an outcome that results in immigrants picking this land we love to call home. It has to inspire a welcoming culture here, where we replace the term “come-from-away” with “Newfoundlander and Labradorian by choice.” It has to resonate with the very people we want to attract here.
God knows, we won’t get them to come for the weather.