In Brief: An AIMS paper, The Developing Workforce Problem, is prompting Nova Scotians to look at the demographic changes that are happening. In this op-ed, businessman Rob Batherson uses the AIMS paper to point out the problem and provide some suggestions. 

THE RECENT RELEASE of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s economic strategy scorecard provided a sobering reminder that we still have a long way to go as a community to meet the targets set in 2005.

One area highlighted in the report that requires greater attention and action by all economic players in Halifax, as well as across the province, is our population.

According to the strategy scorecard, Halifax had the second lowest rate of population growth among comparable cities in Canada. Even more worrisome is the fact that these statistics go up to 2007, during a period when Halifax was enjoying strong economic growth and low unemployment.

Of course, many Nova Scotians won’t be shedding too many tears for Halifax’s situation.

Small-town and rural Nova Scotia communities have been facing the challenges of outmigration and low birth rates for years, if not decades. Visible minority communities, such as our First Nations and African-Canadian citizens, have also suffered from lower levels of employment and participation in the job market.

Regardless of who has faced the challenges of population and demographic shifts for a longer time, it’s clear that all signs point to Nova Scotia facing a demographic crisis.

Crisis is not too strong a word. The Halifax scorecard comes on the heels of a report issued in December by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. It projects that Nova Scotia will have 46,000 fewer people by 2026. This breaks down into:

  • 90,000 more seniors, an increase of 70 per cent;
  • 50,000 fewer students in our elementary, junior and senior high schools, a drop of 30 per cent;
  • 22,000 fewer students for our post-secondary institutions, a drop of 30 per cent; and
  • 80,000 fewer people in our labour force, a drop of 12 per cent.

Why should these forecasts worry us?

The demographic cocktail of a lower population — more seniors, fewer young people and a smaller workforce — will leave Nova Scotia with a major economic and social hangover. Symptoms of this hangover will include flat retail sales, lower property values, less construction, higher business costs as qualified workers become scarce and a much weaker ability of government to support vital public services, such as health care, education, infrastructure and social services.

How do we properly address our looming population and demographic crisis? All three levels of government have taken steps to address it. For example, Nova Scotia has increased the number of new Canadians coming to our province.

Immigration, however, is only one part of solving our population problem. Here’s one idea to consider.

Let’s make it easier for small businesses to hire new graduates from our universities and community college. Through Nova Scotia Business Inc. and Film Nova Scotia, the province has successfully used payroll tax incentives to attract jobs and investment to Nova Scotia. Why not establish a payroll tax rebate program to support companies who provide one year paid internship programs for new graduates? Employers would need to step up and make the commitment to employ a young university or community college for one year after graduation. Government, in turn, would provide a break on the taxes these employers would pay.

Just imagine the impact of a program that kept 1,000 young Nova Scotians working at small businesses in Halifax, Sydney, New Glasgow, Kentville, Bridgewater or Yarmouth, instead of leaving the province for Ontario or Alberta. Now, imagine the effect of such a program over a 20-year period.

Robert Batherson is senior vice-president and co-owner of Colour, a communications and marketing agency with offices in Halifax, Moncton and St. John’s.