A statistical snapshot of Canada’s labour force confirms the growth in Saint John’s energy sector and construction. But there are also worrying trends.

In 2001-2006, New Brunswick had the lowest percentage of post secondary graduates of the 10 provinces, and the largest net outmigration of PSE graduates in Atlantic Canada – a loss of nearly 5,000 educated residents. The economy overall is shifting from manufacturing to service sectors, yet in New Brunswick, the construction sector has seen the greatest growth.

These statistics paint a portrait of a province in transition – and the Graham government should be paying attention, if it hopes to manage the transition toward a more productive, prosperous and populous economy.

The acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says these statistics show a need for substantial changes in how post-secondary education is delivered. We would add an important caveat: to understand why few residents are graduating and many graduates are leaving, one must factor in student debt and economic opportunity.

New Brunswick students accrue one of the highest debt loads in Canada. This cannot be cleared easily by working for minimum wage, or even at $12 an hour in a call centre.

In our opinion, the labour force statistics reflect a deficit of opportunities in the high end of New Brunswick’s economy. The thousands of PSE graduates who are taking their credentials out of this province are finding better employment elsewhere – a problem that cannot be addressed solely through education reform. New Brunswick needs new economic sector development as badly as it needs a more effective and student-focused strategy for higher education.

The government should adopt a comprehensive strategy that includes the following elements:

– a major expansion of trades and technical education, not just to meet local demand, but to establish this province as a national training centre. This would establish a new knowledge-based industry and attract new residents.

– manage professional training programs to meet N.B.’s needs. How many lawyers, engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers will be required? The brain drain can be slowed by more closely matching program intake to opportunities in the economy – and the looming shortage of professionals can be addressed the same way.

– change the tax structure to promote private-sector research and development and give advantages to emerging service sectors, such as back office functions, data management and financial services. This is where the growth in higher salary employment is going to come from.

There is no magic bullet for the demographic and economic challenges facing New Brunswick, but a co-ordinated approach to post-secondary education, economic development and population growth is likely to produce better results. The goal is to develop a diverse economy – one in which skilled trades people and university graduates can own homes, raise families and sustain their communities.