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If Atlantic Canada leads the country in any category, it’s having the highest unemployment rates.
Historically, Atlantic Canada has suffered from too much labour supply and too little demand for that labour. Chronic under-employment and unemployment has been constant for decades.
High unemployment rates – generally driven by low economic growth - are bad for the economy, and is partly the consequence of little or no population growth since the 1990s. Prince Edward Island is the one exception to this Atlantic Canadian trend - only P.E.I. has seen steady increases in employment and the economic benefits associated with population growth in the last decade or so. Think about the current construction boom in Charlottetown as an example.
The number of taxpayers has remained relatively static across Atlantic Canada (with the exception again of P.E.I.) over the last 10 years. This means about the same number of taxpayers have been saddled with the ever-increasing costs of public services. On the Island, the number of taxpayers has been increasing, leaving the province in the middle of the pack in terms of having the highest marginal tax rates in the country. P.E.I.’s marginal tax rate is 51.3 per cent.
The distribution of the population in the region - more than twice as many people live in rural communities relative to the Canadian average - has resulted in limited full-time employment opportunities for too many. At the same time, lack of population growth contributed to weaker economic growth generally and an under-performing economy across much of the region, except P.E.I., where a consistently-growing population has fueled the fastest-growing economy in the region, especially in the past decade.
Oldest population in Canada
Another consequence of lack of population growth is an aging population, driven largely by baby boomers. It's no surprise Atlantic Canada has the oldest population in the country. The lack of newcomers coming to the region has not compensated for the aging population as it has elsewhere in Canada. The good news? Unemployment rates will continue to fall as a result of an aging workforce and the large number of retirements expected over the next decade. The bad news? If nothing is done, without a labour force it will be difficult to keep even our relatively weak economies going.
Not only is Atlantic Canada the oldest population in the country, it has the lowest percentage of the workforce replacement cohort (those 15 years or less). The gap between those 65 years old and those under 15 years old is the largest in the country. This means there will not be enough new workers available to replace those about the leave the workforce in large numbers. In other words, P.E.I. will continue to need to attract workers from elsewhere to grow the current and future workforce to fill the jobs of those retiring. Interestingly, thanks to the steadily growing population, P.E.I. has the lowest gap between those about to enter the work force and those about to leave the work force in the region.
How significant is the challenge for P.E.I.? It’s anticipated there will be 15,000 (+53 per cent) more 65-year-olds living in the province in 2030 than there were in 2015. The Island will need an average population growth of about 1,000 newcomers per year to ensure an adequate work force for its current economy. P.E.I. is in very good shape in terms of its labour force, as it has been doubling this number in recent years, which has contributed to the fastest growing economy in the region. Clearly, population growth is indeed essential for economic prosperity.
Private sector companies must do more to diversify their workforces by ensuring there are opportunities for those coming into the province with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The private sector must become champions of diversity and supporters of immigration. It's not enough to attract newcomers to the Island; retaining those newcomers is equally important.
Cavendish Farms, a JD Irving Limited company, is a good example of a company recognizing the need for a diversified workforce. Recognizing the growing labour supply issue, the company has appointed a director of immigration for this very purpose. The willingness to hire immigrants will be a key determinant of retention of immigrants in our region and the private sector must lead in this regard.
There are other opportunities to grow the workforce other than attracting newcomers that should be considered, including the repatriation of Islanders from elsewhere to return home and the retention of youth. Improving economic prospects greatly enhance these opportunities for the Island.
The challenge for P.E.I. is the ability to attract newcomers to other parts of the province other than Charlottetown, and will require specific population growth strategies for larger communities, especially Summerside.
Don Mills is the former owner of Corporate Research Associates and a recognized expert in data trends in Atlantic Canada. After selling his business recently, he remains passionate about data — and learning the guitar. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @donmillshfx.