From a recent TJ column:
If I asked you to give a thumbnail sketch of the Fredericton economy, you might be tempted to say it is “a government town”.
While public administration remains a vital part of the regional economy it is now far less important than it was 25 years ago. In 1987, there were 16 workers in the public administration sector out of every 100 in the employed workforce. By 2012, that number was down to 11 out of every 100 employed persons.
The fastest growing industry group in the past 25 years by a wide margin has been professional, scientific and technical services. Employment within this segment of the economy tripled between 1987 and 2012.
Fredericton now has the highest concentration of engineers in its workforce compared to any other urban centre across Canada. It is also churning out information technology (IT) startups at an impressive rate. Some of the most interesting new startups in Atlantic Canada call the capital city home with names such as Zaptap, IntroHive and UserEvents.
These firms are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Radian6, Q1 Labs and Chalk Media – successful local startups that were acquired by global IT leaders.
At least in part because of the depth of engineering and IT talent, the German corporate behemoth Siemens recently accounced it was establishing a global Centre of Competence in Fredericton where it will develop innovative Smart Grid applications for clients around the world.
Fredericton’s brainpower comes out of a very impressive local feeder system. Out of the 68 economic regions across Canada, Fredericton-Oromocto has the highest percentage of its workforce employed in educational services. In 2012, eleven percent of the employed workforce plied their trade in the education sector – led by the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University. This was well above Halifax (9 percent), Kitchener-Waterloo-Barrie (7.8 percent) and Toronto (7.3 percent).
Fredericton has more residents with masters’ degrees than all but three other urban centres across Canada.
Fredericton is also a place that would get Florida excited (specifically, Richard Florida). The community ranks among the top 10 percent of urban centres across Canada for the intensity of artists and cultural sector workers.
What is the prognosis for a community with a highly educated workforce, deep engineering expertise, a growing roster of IT startups and a broad creative and artistic profile?
These economic fundamentals in Fredericton point to a very positive long term outlook. Yet, there are warning signs that we can’t take economic growth in the Fredericton region for granted.
Between 2010 and 2012, the number of employed persons has dropped by 4,300. Enrolment in the city’s two universities is in decline. Much of the brain power is aging as the boomer population moves towards retirement. Continued public sector austerity will likely hit the capital city harder than most.
There are many things that can be done to bolster the local economy over the next decade. Dramatically increasing the number of international students will help stabilize the economic contribution of the education sector and provide a feeder system for new population. Expanding the infrastructure to support knowledge-based startups will make the community even more attractive to ambitious entrepreneurs.
Fredericton’s engineers are well positioned to take advantage of emerging natural resource industries in New Brunswick and beyond.
Fostering more artists and broadening the cultural sector will only increase the community’s quality of life and expand tourism possibilities. If Richard Florida is right, it will also foster more creativity across the local economy.
But the biggest risk to Fredericton’s economic potential may be complacency. To fully take advantage of these emerging opportunities will take time and investment on the part of both the public and private sectors. It will require creative thinking and new partnerships.