MONCTON – Economist and author Richard Saillant says even though the annual data from Statistics Canada shows slight growth in New Brunswick’s labour force by 600 people, underlying demographic challenges remain.
“Compared to previous years where we had a decline of several thousand, that’s an improvement. But the reason why it’s up is mostly because you have more people between the ages of 15-24 either working or looking for work,” he said in an interview with Huddle.
“But when you’re looking at 25+ [age group], or what you call the core working age, that’s actually in decline.”
New Brunswick’s labour force – people aged 15 and older who are either working or looking for work – grew from 383,900 in 2017 to 384,500 last year.
Around 2,300 more people aged 15-to-24 were active in the workforce last year compared to 2017. But those 25-and-older in the labour force dropped 1,800 from 2017 to 2018, offsetting much of the gains in the younger age group.
“[Labour force numbers] has been trending downwards since 2013. In 2018, we’ve managed to stop this, but simply because of a probably one-off situation with respect to youth labour force growth, in terms of participation rate,” he said.
Saillant said this isn’t because New Brunswick has more youth than before, it’s just that more of them were active in the labour market last year. This growth in labour force participation is a temporary phenomenon.
“In other words, we cannot expect similar growth in the number of youth working in the future, although the percentage of youth working may well stay the same.”
The population of 15-to-24-year-olds didn’t actually grow last year. Instead, it fell by 1,100. If the overall population grew, it was mostly thanks to the increase of people aged 65 and older, the data shows.
Moreover, preliminary data released by the Vital Statistics Office at Service New Brunswick in December shows 1,095 fewer babies were born in the province in 2018.
Saillant said the fertility rate has remained more-or-less stable after going up “a bit” until the turn of the decade. But a decreasing number of people of reproductive age means the birth rate is unlikely to go up unless there is more immigration.
“We’re going to have fewer and fewer people of [reprofuctive] age unless we welcome way more immigrants in the years ahead because immigrants tend to be precisely around the age of between 25 and 35,” he said. “So what we’re seeing is that without much more immigrants, the prospects for births to go up in the years ahead are relatively dim. In fact, they’re more likely to go down.”
It’s important, though, to not only focus on population growth, but also on labour force expansion, Saillant said.
“As long as baby boomers are fairly young, you can have population growth while witnessing a decline in the number of working-age people at the same time,” he said.
We still don’t have enough new people coming into the labour force replacing retiring baby boomers. That’s our core challenge and it’s still there.”
“So the type of improvement that we saw in 2018 is bound to be temporary because you can’t have a steadily growing proportion of youth working in the labour force. It might happen another year, but it’s an improvement that’s almost sure to not be replicated,” he added.
“It’s probably in no small part due to immigration that we did not lose as many people as in prior years [in the labour force] for those 25+. We lost 1,800 [in 2018], but in years past we lost more than that and I suspect that immigration has played a positive role.”
Meanwhile, outmigration hasn’t been as bad, Saillant said. Youth migration is expected – whether they’re looking for employment opportunities or are simply drawn by big cities. If the numbers of those leaving are higher than before, that’s because “we have way more immigrants and not all immigrants will stay here either,” he said.
“I’m not saying we’re not losing people, but on a net basis, it doesn’t seem to be that acute. And because baby boomers are retiring, there literally are thousands of jobs vacated and therefore available for new entrants every year.”
Some months, as shown in data from Statistics Canada, New Brunswick could show much higher or lower levels of employment. In December for instance, the province lost 3,100 jobs.
But in the long run, New Brunswick’s unemployment rate has been trending downwards. though it’s always been a little higher than that of Canada as a whole, largely because seasonal work is a lot more common in the province, he explained.
“But if you look at most cities and towns and regions, the main concern of businesspeople now is not job creation as much as it is finding people to occupy the vacant positions. We’ve had a paradigm shift there. We’ve moved from job creation to filling positions as the imperative,” Saillant said.