By Simon Cheung

FLORENCEVILLE – Allison McCain knows New Brunswick businesses can keep up with companies across the globe – they just need the infrastructure to help them along.

The chairman of the board of McCain Foods Ltd. said government investment in roads, ports and communications infrastructure would go a long way toward giving businesses like his the tools they need to grow wealth in the province.

“The province clearly needs more big companies, and hopefully it has some small to medium-sized companies that will grow into big companies. The government has to do its part to provide the right environment for that to happen,” McCain said. “Infrastructure is a big responsibility of government – after that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

According to the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, New Brunswick has 80 major projects planned or in the works totalling $10 billion, up eight per cent from 2005, but trailing the 91 projects worth $21.9 billion in Newfoundland and Labrador and 143 projects worth $20.4 billion in Nova Scotia.

The projects in New Brunswick include $544 million in Trans-Canada Highway construction and a $125-million rural road initiative, as well as $48 million toward the Université de Moncton’s Excellence Campaign.

In a corporate survey conducted by Area Development magazine, highway accessibility topped the list of concerns for executives in selecting location with 91 per cent saying it was important or very important, followed by labour costs and the availability of skilled labour.

McCain touched on the need for human capital, though he admitted that as a global company with a recognizable brand, McCain Foods has not experienced the same skills shortage problems that smaller New Brunswick companies have.

“The biggest challenge for us, probably, is getting good people to work here in New Brunswick,” he said. “It’s a very good place to do business, but it’s convincing people who aren’t from New Brunswick that it’s a good place to be “… that it’s where the action is.”

“We need a larger population – more workers, more skilled workers. We need more highly qualified people working here; starting businesses here.”

McCain was in Florenceville earlier this week at the annual McCain Foods potato grower’s banquet, recognizing the top potato suppliers in the region. Among the 400 in attendance were Premier Bernard Lord and Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture David Alward.

David Chaundy, senior economist at APEC, said the council conducted a survey of foreign firms about their assessments of Atlantic Canada, expected to be released in October.

“Road transportation seems to be one of our biggest impediments in terms of our business environment,” he said, adding that energy costs, corporate taxes and the regulatory environment also came up as major concerns.

Compared to other jurisdictions, he said, Atlantic Canada rates well for labour force availability.

“It’s not necessarily building new schools and community colleges,” Chaundy said. “It’s the quality of what’s coming out of existing institutions is probably the bigger issue.”

Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the key to developing the province’s human capital – which is at least as important as investment in physical infrastructure – is provincial investments in education.

“We’re heading into a period of extreme labour shortages in the next decade,” Crowley said, noting for example an impending truck driver shortage due to the labour force’s aging demographic. “Immigration can help, but with the kind of numbers that we’re going to be looking for in terms of trained workers, it’s hard to imagine that we could supply that through immigration – especially considering out track record in the region.”

Crowley said he suspects New Brunswick businesses could benefit from highways, secondary roads and water supply and treatment investments as well. Big businesses, he said, would look for transportation infrastructure when considering investing in the province.

“They have to be able to get their raw materials in and their finished product out quickly, cheaply and efficiently,” said Crowley. “If they don’t see road, rail and air links that are suitable for their purposes, they’re simply not going to look any further.”

In October 2000, the federal and New Brunswick governments signed a six-year Infrastructure Canada-New Brunswick Partnership Agreement worth $163 million in infrastructure investments from federal, provincial and municipal governments focused on improving quality of life through projects like improving waste management systems and providing wireless internet systems.

Richard LeBlanc, executive director at New Brunswick’s Enterprise Network, said some companies are now looking for day care, health care and arts programs for their employees.

“It’s not just bricks and mortar; we have to think holistically,” he said. “We have to think of technology; we have to think more cultural stuff, entertainment stuff.”

“If we strive to have the best (human resources) resources, we’ll attract companies.”