2018-04-23 - Immigration is Key to Our Economic Future

We have been hearing plenty of talk about immigration lately as well as the importance of attracting and retaining even more newcomers in the future. Our organization fully supports the effort underway to grow our population through immigration, but I do understand why this push for immigrants may be confusing for some people – after all, New Brunswickers have been heading west to look for work for decades, parts of the province have unemployment rates nearing 20% and job growth is slow. It’s reasonable in that context to ask why do we even need immigration anyway? Why not just focus on repatriating those that have left or retaining youth or upskilling unemployed workers? The short answer is that we should absolutely be doing those things as well, but not at the expense of our immigration efforts. We need them all.

I think part of the problem is that we tend to use ‘immigration’ as a monolithic term, lumping everyone moving to Canada from elsewhere in the world into one easily-understood, but over-simplistic category. In reality, newcomers enter Canada through a number of streams for various purposes. Each of these have their own processes, criteria and limits. These include skilled workers, entrepreneurs, refugees, international students, temporary foreign workers, family reunifications, and so on.

Skilled workers are brought in to fill a specific job with particular skills where employees have been unable to find an employee within Canada, entrepreneurs have an approved business plan and their financial situation has been validated by government, international students have been accepted into a recognized program. Each category fills a need that we, as Canadians or New Brunswickers, have identified. The numbers are stark and clear – the province has an aging and stagnant population with fewer individuals in the workforce. Amongst other challenges, this means increased healthcare and other costs with a diminished capacity to pay for it.

It is becoming an increasingly common occurrence that Statistics Canada labour force numbers in New Brunswick show both a loss of jobs ​and a lowering unemployment rate. This means we are losing people from the workforce in droves. It is a crisis. Perhaps the silver lining here is that the urgency of our situation is becoming clearer and action is being taken throughout New Brunswick to attract and retain more newcomers. The business association alliance that released our “We Choose Growth” platform last month agrees – labour force development is one of the five key priorities relevant to businesses throughout the province. The New Brunswick Multicultural Council is about to embark on a cross-province tour to further make this case; the national Public Policy Forum just recently hosted a full-day conference focused on immigration in Fredericton; the Atlantic Ballet is hosting an immigration summit next month; community, government and business organizations are planning newcomer job fairs; and Syrian refugees with low-level English are being trained to work in the food industry in a program coordinated by our Chamber and the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, just to name a few.

Here at the Fredericton chamber, our efforts in this regard are primarily focused on two fronts – leveraging the expertise of our members: entrepreneurial support and retaining international students. The quality of our post-secondary institutions is a competitive advantage that we must leverage; international students are educated, skilled and typically young – a winning combination for a province with our demographic and labour challenges. Last fall, we passed a policy resolution at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce annual conference that targets federal policy changes to make it easier for international students to gain Canadian work experience and extend their post-graduation job-search period – both aimed at making it more likely they will stay for the long-term. There are clear long-term advantages, but fueling our post-secondary institutions with students makes sense in the short- and medium-terms too – they are major economic drivers for the province in their own right. We are also hopeful that governments leverage the high-quality private institutions in the province to make their programs equally eligible for these purposes.

On the entrepreneurial-support front, the Fredericton chamber first became involved with the launch of our Business Immigrant Mentorship Program in 2009. That program introduces newcomers with local business people as mentors and instructors – helping to bridge the gap that exists between doing business in Canada and their home countries. This model has since been rolled out across New Brunswick and in several other western provinces. In 2014 we rolled out Phase 2, with the Hive Incubator. This immersive business environment gives our entrepreneurial newcomers office space and access to valuable resources – most importantly the other business people in the ecosystem.

In 2016, we added Succession Connect – a program that seeks to match newcomers and existing business owners. In short, the program is seeking to create two databases: one of existing businesses that are for sale and one of newcomer entrepreneurs that are looking to buy an existing businesses. Getting these two groups together in a confidential and discreet manner could be the difference between a business closing or staying open AND retaining a business-minded newcomer and their families or having them move to another province. It is estimated that 75% of small business owners will retire over the next decade, with $1 trillion in business assets changing hands. In fact, our programs are currently a finalist for RBC’s 2018 Top Settlement Agency Award.

I’ve heard people say that immigration isn’t going to solve all of our problems and of course that’s true. There is no one single answer that will be the cure for all of the province’s ills – but one thing is certain: we need people. This certainly means repatriating and retaining, but it also must include the newcomers that are knocking on our door. It is imperative that we answer it.

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce​, a nationally accredited organization with nearly 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’