The Good And Bad News About Atlantic Canada’s Labour Market

Anil Arora, chief statistician at Statistics Canada. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

MONCTON – Atlantic Canada used to be a region with too many workers, who then moved to Western provinces to fill jobs there. But as its population grows older and fewer children are being born, it’s now facing a labour shortage, panellists at an event hosted by Statistics Canada in Moncton noted Monday.

It’s also facing global pressures from the changing nature of work and advances in technology.

Adrienne O’Pray, the president and CEO of the New Brunswick Business Council, says organizations in New Brunswick are realizing this change in the past few years and have to adapt.

“As a region, we’ve always had a lot of availability of labour and I think our reputation was we have bilingual and loyal workers, and a lot of labour availability at a competitive wage. That has always been our sales pitch and we were able to be successful in bringing in some industries like back-office finance and contact centres and client service centres,” she said.

While bilingualism, for instance, remains an advantage, the province has to look at other strengths and capitalize on those too, O’Pray said. She noted that the Atlantic provinces have been quite successful in immigrant attraction. In New Brunswick, she has seen collaboration among municipalities, the provincial government, the federal government, the private sector, the education system and academia.

“I’d say the turning point was five to seven years ago when it really hit organizations that we can’t just put out a job posting and get 200 responses and then we get to choose. We’re having to be a lot more creative and a lot more aggressive, and really think differently about what that relationship is between employers and employees.”

Statistics Canada’s Chief Statistician Anil Arora presented data on the labour market and population growth in Atlantic Canada to a room of around 100 attendees representing the public and private sectors, and academia.

The data shows that Atlantic Canada still has the lowest proportion of immigrants-to-total-workforce ratio in the country – less than 10 per cent each in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI, and under five per cent in Newfoundland. But the growth in the number of immigrants between the decades of 1999-2008 and 2009-2019 outpaced the Canadian average.

PEI leads with a nearly 400 per cent increase, followed by New Brunswick with a more than 150 per cent increase. Newfoundland and Nova Scotia saw between a 50 per cent and 100 per cent increase, each. Canada saw an approximately 10 per cent growth.

“If you compare those two decades together, it’s something that we haven’t seen across Canada,” said Dominique Dionne-Simard, an economist for Statistics Canada said to reporters at the event. “This recent decade shows that something is happening. Different programs, different policies are implicated in that, as well as, I would say, different trends are playing into that.”

Generally, the data indicates immigrants are being retained by the regions they arrived in, Arora said.

“It used to be they’d come to the major centres and then you might see a little bit of trickling down. But for one, provincial programs for immigration have been more aggressive…and we’re also seeing a lot more immigrants stay for longer periods of time in the region that they came to,” he said.

In 2018, PEI saw its population grow at approximately the same rate as Ontario and more than the Canadian average. Nova Scotia’s population increased by nearly 1 per cent and New Brunswick by 0.5 per cent. Only Newfoundland saw a decline.

Moncton [census metro area] stood out and outpaced the provincial rate, growing 1.4 per cent. At 2.3 per cent, the unemployed-to-job-vacancy ratio in Moncton last year was also lower than the rest of the Atlantic provinces and close to the national average of 2.2 per cent.

Susy Campos, the CEO of Greater Moncton’s economic development corporation 3+, wasn’t surprised, but she said labour shortage challenges are top of mind for her and her peers.

In November, the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Moncton will hold a workforce summit in partnership with 3+ and other provincial and regional government agencies. They plan to come up with workforce development strategies.

“Immigration’s just one component, right? Looking at the 55+ [population] is another one. Looking at the underemployed is another one. Of course, trying to match the skills of youth to jobs of the future,” she said.

Meanwhile, GDP growth in most Atlantic provinces was driven by services-producing industry more than goods-producing sectors, except for Newfoundland. Due to advances in technology, among other things, employment in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing fell. Overall, temporary employment is still higher in Atlantic Canada than other parts of the country, but the share has declined over the years.

“Unemployment levels are at their lowest in recent years and even decades in the Atlantic. So this is something we see when the indicators go in the positive, we see temporary shifting to more permanent jobs,” Dionne-Simard said.

However, the overall picture for population growth remains bleak. Statistics Canada predicts that based on current trends, the population share of the Atlantic provinces could be less than 5 per cent of Canada by 2061, down from more than 10 per cent in 1961.

Statistics Canada’s Josée Bégin, NBBC’s Adrienne OPray, Herb Emery, ONB’s Patrick Richard and Moncton economic development officer Kevin Silliker. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

A Change In Perspective

O’Pray says the population challenges are expected, but the bleak prediction gives a higher sense of urgency.

“What it says is we can’t ignore this problem. It’s not going to go away and so we have to think creatively about job creation, as an example. We use that a metric of success but what we should be looking at is what kind of investment and how are organizations growing and are they competitive,” she said.

“There’s no one thing that’s going to solve this issue – if we think immigration is a silver bullet? It’s not. It’s things like investment in automation, changing workforce policies. All those things in common are going to allow us to win.”

Panellist Herb Emery, UNB’s Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics, says there needs to change its mindset from thinking only of labour supply, to thinking about the labour market as a whole.

“[That] means we think about both labour demand and labour supply. Labour demand means we think about things like investment, productivity, businesses’ ability to pay workers higher wages, and on the other side, that will make some of the labour problems fix themselves if you can fix the market’s adjustment,” he said.

“What’s missing right now is we don’t want to think about the demand side. We don’t want to think about the burden of capital through things like property taxes and things like that. So our solution is just to go out and find people who are happy with the wage we can offer. And that’s why I think there’s so much pressure on immigration as a solution.”

Emery says the province should look at immigration as a dividend of higher investment and higher wages. He also notes that Moncton is leading growth in the province because there had been a lot of investment in the city, helped by its location as a transport hub.

“Moncton is sort of a shining beacon. We need to figure out how to help Moncton do more because it could actually grow even more. Whatever conditions we can do to help Saint John would also help Moncton – that would kind of be the logic behind it,” he said.

O’Pray urges stakeholders to collaborate if New Brunswick is to overcome the challenges it faces.

“Sometimes it’s only when it’s upon us do we perhaps make the investment or act,” she said. “I’m seeing more [collaboration] for sure. It’s not always easy but we’ve got to be persistent and we’ve got to stick with it because that’s how we’re going to win.”