SAINT JOHN – To counter an anticipated country-wide labour shortage Canada must cut its public sector, encourage the unemployed to enter the workforce, and create incentive for workers to delay retirement, says the leader of a Halifax-based public policy think-tank.

Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, predicts Canada’s employment base will drop suddenly over the next few years, as the country “steps off the edge of a demographic cliff.”

“We are about to enter an era of severe and worsening labour shortages,” Crowley told a room full of port officials at the 50th annual general meeting for the Association of Canadian Port Authorities in Saint John.

Since the 1960s about a quarter million people have entered the workforce every year, but with the baby boomer generation nearing retirement, that number could drop to near zero, Crowley said.

Over the last 50 years our labour force grew 200 per cent. In the next 50, our labour force will grow by only 11 per cent, Crowley said.

Crowley said raising immigration levels would not alone be able to stabilize the aging population and counter the expected drop in labour supply.

In order for immigration to satisfy the expected drop in labour, Crowley said, “it would require us to let in seven times the number of immigrants that we normally do, and they’d all have to be under 30, and we would have to do that for 30 years.

“Now I don’t know about you, but I think that that is practically and politically not in the cards.”

Instead, Crowley suggested a host of policy changes that would cut back the welfare state and increase privatization to encourage more Canadians to enter the labour market.

The five provinces running from Ontario eastward, including New Brunswick, are particularly inefficient in terms of labour participation.

If Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada brought down public sector employment to the national average, and at the same time raised participation in the labour market to the national level, Crowley said, it would create another 156,000 workers ready to meet the forthcoming labour shortage.