By David Shipley
As appeared on page A1

New Brunswick’s acute labour shortage will worsen unless drastic measures are taken. That’s the consensus of a select group of six CEOs and executives who participated in an exclusive focus group conducted for the Telegraph-Journal by Bristol.

The Atlantic Canada-based marketing and communications firm conducted the interviews last week. Members of the group were granted anonymity.

“In the next five years there will be a serious shortage of nurses. We can’t get them just from New Brunswick. Where will they come from? I don’t know because other provinces have the same problem,” said one top executive.

“We’ve got to start to look at how we will make the regulations fit and how we will be able to bring people in. Even when we want them to come, we can’t get them.”

Significantly increasing efforts to repatriate former New Brunswickers and attract new immigrants is the solution to labour shortages in the public and private sectors , the leaders say.

“We need to attract more people to New Brunswick, whether from Canada, the United States or other countries,” said one. “As an entrepreneur, I would like to see more people to come here to set up their own business. We need entrepreneurs to supplement those who are here.”

While Canada’s population increased by 5.4 per cent, or 1.6 million people between 2001 and 2006, New Brunswick’s population growth was virtually stagnate. New Brunswick’s population grew by only .1 per cent or 499 people over the same period and sits at 729,997. In the previous census, which covered population trends between 1996 and 2001, New Brunswick experienced a net loss of 8,400 people.

A baby boomer dominated workforce approaching retirement age will only worsen New Brunswick’s labour shortage. The population decline and subsequent labour shortages are more severe in the province’s rural and northern communities, which have experienced the largest population losses. The decline in smaller communities is threatening the businesses that rely on a stable population base for their labour, said one participant.

“It is difficult to convince banks to invest in you when you are involved in communities that are in flux.”

A ramped up immigration effort, including a new formal agreement with Ottawa to boost immigration to New Brunswick, can combat the population decline and labour shortage, the leaders say. But to achieve that goal, the province needs to cut the red tape slowing immigration and boost support to groups that help new immigrants settle in the province.

“We tried to bring someone from China, and when we went to the province and to the federal government they said it would take 24 months,” said one leader. “We need the person now. Even seven months (the time required by the Provincial Nomination Program) is way too long. It’s a system that discourages people to come.”

As well, the province doesn’t easily accept immigrant labour, one participant said.

“(Skilled immigrants) have to go through associations and a whole bunch of steps before they get access to the job. It’s not set up to encourage, but to discourage.”

One way to attract more immigrants to New Brunswick would be to examine whether immigrants interested in larger urban centres – but who can’t get in because the current quota has been filled – can be enticed to come to New Brunswick.

“I think it’s a reasonable proposition that if a person wants to come to Canada and the quotas are such that they can’t get in Toronto or Vancouver, that they have the option of committing themselves to some lesser place in Canada and stay there for a length of time,” said a participant

“Not forever, but if they are going to be the beneficiaries of services and support, then they could agree to reside in certain areas. This has never been tested. Canada’s approach to immigration is certainly open to be looked at again.”

The leaders noted, however, that such an incentive approach might run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said while agreements to keep immigrants in a certain province for a certain period of time might violate the charter, provinces have found other ways to keep new immigrants.

“For example with their business investment classes (of immigrants) they get them to invest a smaller fee for rural areas,” he said.

“The entire Atlantic provinces has lower investment caps than the rest of the country does,” he said.

One way to attract more immigrants to the region is to look for people from rural areas overseas who are looking to start a new life in Canada, he said.

Overall New Brunswick does fairly well when it comes to immigration, Cirtwill said.

“From a comparable perspective New Brunswick is actually in the middle of the pack, maybe even upper half of the pack in terms of how long it takes for fast-track immigrants to get in,” he said.

“It’s the standard exercise of immigration that takes a long time.”