When I first started in economic development back in the early 1990s our sales pitch to local, national and international industries focused on the size of the available talent pool in New Brunswick. If you set up a manufacturing operation here you will get thousands of qualified applicants. If you set up a back office here you will get 5 qualified applicants for every available job. If you put an IT development shop here the talent will be lined up at the door before you even put out the help wanted sign.
One of the benefits of my job is that I get to work on interesting projects communities large and small from St. John’s to Winnipeg and nowadays the lack of talent is a barrier to growth just about everywhere. It’s not just a pandemic thing. This was brewing way before Covid-19 – the pandemic just accelerated things.
I have been working on a few projects in the London, Ontario region and am increasingly convinced the ability to demonstrate a very strong talent pipeline is the key to attracting investment and economic growth. In other words, you don’t have to show a lot of surplus talent in the current workforce but you must be able to signal clearly that you have more talent in the pipe than other communities. If companies locate in your community they will be better able to recruit workers compared to other communities as long as they offer competitive wages and a good working environment.
What is the talent pipeline?
Come back to London – among the most successful urban centres in Canada for a while now. The community has 60,000 post-secondary education students or 213 PSE students for every 1,000 in the workforce. Halifax and the Waterloo region are others with a very high PSE/workforce ratio.
This benefits a community in multiple ways. It provides a lot of student workers to ease shortages in retail and service industries and it provides an ongoing talent pool for local industries. It is also a good source of entrepreneurs. It clearly demonstrates an ongoing pool of talent and signals to industry a commitment to churning out talent.
Of course there needs to be some focus on aligning with workforce demand. If you are graduating 60,000 basket weavers that would be another thing (although you might end up with quite a cluster of basket weaving companies).
So, in general, this statistic below concerns me. New Brunswick as of the 2018-2019 school year has by far the fewest enrolled in post-secondary education (university and college). From the peak enrolment of nearly 35,000 in 2004-2005, NB PSE enrolment is down by 23 percent even as it has risen by 28 percent across Canada.
In my opinion, New Brunswick should be turning out surplus talent in industries that we see as holding export-focused growth potential such as cybersecurity, next generation back office activity, tourism, etc. If some of the graduates leave to find work elsewhere, so be it. I’m not sure it is a bad thing if NB is training cybersecurity workers who then deploy elsewhere. They may end up back here some day.
I’m not suggesting we over-graduate plumbers, hair dressers or janitors – unless some enterprising entrepreneurs could turn that surplus into a business opportunity – but in industries where growth potential is tightly correlated to the talent pool – I would.
Of course PSE is not the only source of talent. Communities that can show a clear and sustained ability to attract immigrants or migrants from elsewhere in Canada can also trumpet a strong talent pipeline.
If I was marketing a community these days I would lead with this data. Forget about your beautiful beaches and nice people. Don’t worry too much about the unemployment rate. Push the talent pipeline:
- We have 213 PSE enrolment per 1,000 in the workforce – top five in the country among urban centres.
- We have an annual inflow of 154 immigrants per 10,000 population.
Again, ultimately the message needs more fine grained calibration – aligned with workforce demand – but at a high level – showing your talent pipeline is now the most important way to promote your community.
If word gets around that companies are easily able to find workers in your community that becomes the killer app.