Population growth vital to meeting labour needs: minister

Kevin O’Brien hopes immigration will help offset temporary worker losses

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on July 2, 2014
Kevin O’Brien, minister of advanced education and skill

Within the next two weeks, the provincial government will release a “what we heard” document on its coming population growth strategy, according to Advanced Education and Skills Minister Kevin O’Brien.

He said he expects to publicly present the completed strategy and its recommendations this fall.

The plan — promised during the 2011 general election and, earlier this year, promised to be ready by Canada Day — stretches across government depart­ments and will be important in meeting the province’s future labour market needs.

Already, there are reports of businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador in specific areas hurting from tight labour market conditions, situations exacerbated in some cases by changes made in June to the federal temporary foreign worker program.

The changes restrict the hottest areas of the provincial economy from using the stop-gap of temporary foreign workers, who currently number about 3,000 in this province.

O’Brien said he is concerned about the effects of the program changes. 

He spoke to federal Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney about the program two to three weeks ago and has a meeting with Kenney scheduled for next week. He said he has also discussed the province’s labour market issues with Chris Alexander, the federal minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

He said he wants higher ceilings for immigration to the province.

“The other piece is that with the challenges now in the temporary foreign worker program, I’ll be looking at all the programs within our department, such as the wage subsidy program, (so) that I can support businesses that are having challenges,” he told The Telegram.

“As well, I’ll be working within my provincial nominee program and the expressed entry program on permanent immigration, to try to offset some of the impact that these changes to the temporary Fforeign worker program would have on industry.”

Immigration, he said, is a priority for the provincial government and will be addressed as part of the population growth strategy.

The Progressive Conservative government released a stand-alone immigration strategy seven years ago, in March 2007. A youth retention and attraction strategy was published in November 2009.

There have also been incentives introduced to bump up the provincial birthrate. However, an increase in birthrate is more likely to help the situation in the long-term.

Statistics Canada estimates for Newfoundland and Labrador show overall outmigration from January to March 2014, but O’Brien noted for the 11 years from April 1, 2003 to April 1, 2014, the province recorded an overall net in-migration of about 5,300 people.

Unfortunately, the province lost about 76,000 people in the 11 years prior to that.

According to Liberal MHA Cathy Bennett, it is past time for a deeper discussion of what to do to address labour market needs and population growth.

The Telegram sat down with Bennett on the topic prior to the federal government’s announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program. Regardless of what was done with that bridging program, Bennett said the province can do more to promote immigration to the province for the long term.

She acknowledged immigration allowances are entirely within federal jurisdiction. However, she said more could be done at the provincial level to help retain new immigrants.

“There’s lots of reasons why people come. It isn’t just about the job. It’s about a life. And there’s a whole lot of things that have to be done as part of that,” she said, adding governments need to make sure “enablers” are in place.

She pointed to a roughly $1-million budget for the provincial Office of Immigration and Multiculturalism in 2014-15, as opposed to roughly $2 million in 2012 as a mark against the current government’s commitment to increased immigrant retention rates.

“I think it’s not just about the money. Part of what has to happen with immigration is we have to have dialogues with stakeholders. So we have to have ongoing dialogue with the immigrant community to find out where the (service) gaps are. We have to have dialogues with those organizations that are providing settlement services like the Association for New Canadians,” she said. “And I think it’s one thing to say you’re going to have a dialogue, it’s a whole heightened level of accountability when you commit to a scheduled dialogue.”

She said while people are not to be considered just as head counts, target numbers for immigration need to be reset and publicly stated as a reflection of a commitment to growth. The 2007 immigration strategy stated the province was attracting about 400 immigrants annually, with a retention rate of about 36 per cent — the lowest in Canada. The set target was 1,200 to 1,500 immigrants annually within five years, at a retention rate of 80 per cent for provincial nominees and 70 per cent for all other immigrants.

O’Brien said the province welcomed about 800 immigrants last year.