Viewpoint: What new workforce realities mean for Atlantic Canada

Viewpoint: What new workforce realities mean for Atlantic Canada
Dr. Robert Greenwood, executive director, public engagement and the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development, Memorial University of Newfoundland

TODAY, NATURAL RESOURCE EMPLOYERS are challenged to find enough workers. And increasingly, the workers they need have to come with state-of the-art skills and training.

Many baby boomers have enjoyed long-term employment in fishing, forestry and mining, and many were trained on the job over many years. As technology has ramped up, demands on re-training have increased, and fewer workers have been needed to churn out just as much, or more, production.

How can Atlantic Canada thrive in a turbulent time for natural resources sectors rife with technological and demographic change? The answer is to focus on producing more with less.

Large natural resource developments continue to generate employment for thousands of construction workers. With long-distance commuting, workers can continue to live in their home communities. The same applies to many workers in mines, on fishing boats, and on oil rigs and supply boats. While there are far fewer jobs in rural areas linked to natural resource production, more of them are highly skilled and highly paid.

And while the transition unfolds, there is the paradoxical reality of some people looking for work who can’t find it, while employers in the same communities or regions complain they can’t get the workers they need. But what employers mean is they can’t find the right workers, with the right training and skills.

For younger workers, and older workers able to get the training they need, these changes are creating new opportunities for well-paid work. Groups of people who were traditionally underrepresented in Canada’s natural resource industries―indigenous groups, women and immigrants―are helping to step in and fill the labour shortages that are emerging.

Reinforcing the demand for cutting-edge skills and training, more new technologies are being introduced to enhance productivity even further. The new Ocean Supercluster, led out of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, is exploring new opportunities for digitalization and remote operations across a range of ocean industries. These developments drive new opportunities for firms in the supply chain for natural resource industries, and these opportunities demand even more workers―and entrepreneurs―with specialized education and training.

Every period of technological revolution has resulted in massive employment and industrial change. Many types of jobs have been eliminated but―so far―the economic growth resulting from the new technologies has led to employment growth.

Economic growth comes from two sources: population growth and productivity growth. Demographers are seeing fertility rates drop as education levels increase. Productivity growth is where we need to focus. Necessity is the mother of invention (and commercialization?!). Our natural resource industries have to adapt to the new reality, in urban and rural areas, of fewer workers entering the labour force. Immigration is a key means to mitigate the challenge, but it is clear retaining immigrants in rural and remote areas is more difficult than in large urban centres.

The Harris Centre at Memorial University has looked at labour market areas throughout Atlantic Canada. The Harris Centre’s RAnLab (Regional Analytics Lab) has done population projections, sector and supply chain analysis and health care and other service sector analysis to support development agencies, municipalities and the federal and provincial governments. Our Population Project is looking at how communities, industries and service providers can adapt to the new demographic reality. And our new Diversity Research Fund will support research on how to increase diversity in resource industries.

Universities and colleges, industry, organized labour and governments, along with NGOs, the media and civil society, have to face these developments head on. The world the boomers grew up in in Atlantic Canada is coming to an end. Do we have the foresight to shape change to ensure future generations will enjoy the great quality of life we have had? I think the answer is yes, but it will take a shift in our thinking and how we do business―in industries, communities and governments. |nrm

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