A casual reading of recent news headlines could lead one to believe that we are heading for a regional economic catastrophe in Atlantic Canada. An article written by John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail on March 20, 2015 proclaimed across the nation: “How the Maritimes became Canada’s incredible shrinking region”. Citing a depressed economy, regional mentalities, and an aging population, Ibbitson makes the case that more focus needs to be placed on immigration, importing the future labour force of New Brunswick from countries around the globe. New Brunswick is aging rapidly and if workforce trends continue, there will not be enough taxpayers to pay for things such as healthcare.
Recent data released by the NB Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour shows that 119,150 jobs are going to become available across the province over the next ten years. This is mainly due to demographic challenges such as an expected wave of retirements. These workforce challenges have put a significant strain on local industries and small businesses, which has led to an increased awareness of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFW). The TFW brings foreign citizens into the province to meet workforce needs that cannot be met locally. While the TFW program can contribute to meeting the future labour demand, New Brunswick not only needs to consider immigration policies, but also the Aboriginal workforce in its backyard.
Aboriginal people are an emerging workforce for government, industries, and small businesses to tap into. They are young, skilled, and seeking greater opportunities. With 41.5% of the population below the age of 24, compared to just 27.2% of non-Aboriginals, the Aboriginal population is also growing rapidly. In 2011, 6,090 Aboriginal youth were between the ages of 5-19, and these youth will be entering the workforce in increasing numbers as the rest of the province ages and retires. This fact shows us that we must involve Aboriginal youth in the future of the province.
A recent study from Indspire shows that Aboriginal people will succeed given the necessary financial support. They reported that 93% of NB Aboriginal students who received scholarship money graduated from their post-secondary program. The average annual income of Aboriginal people in NB is just $22,320, and many do not have that financial freedom to pursue post-secondary education. This makes financial support essential to ensuring that the Aboriginal youth of New Brunswick emerge as full participants in the provincial workforce. Education is directly linked to employability, and financial support like Indspire is vital to Aboriginal education and employment.
We must do everything we can to help Aboriginal people attain their education. High school completion rates show that 34.5% of Aboriginal people did not complete high school, compared to 24.6% of the non-Aboriginal population. Only 8.7% of Aboriginal people in NB have completed university compared with 15.5% of non-Aboriginal people. The rate of completion in the trades and college certification is comparable, however the gaps in high school and university completion represent that largest barrier to Aboriginal youth entering the workforce. The gap is closing, but continued efforts are required from Aboriginal leadership, communities, provincial/federal governments, and post-secondary institutions. The Joint Economic Development Initiative Inc. (JEDI) is working with all of these partners to help clients overcome these barriers.
The demographic realities of the aging non-Aboriginal population represent a golden opportunity for Aboriginal people to fully participate in the future of the province. Let us not repeat past failures by bypassing the emerging Aboriginal labour force. A collaborative approach must be taken to combat the realities of an aging workforce. This includes both immigration policy and full Aboriginal engagement in the future NB workforce.
Mike Hennessey, Aboriginal Labour Market Information Analyst, will be a monthly contributor to the JEDI blog. From Pabineau First Nation, Mike holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of New Brunswick and is currently finishing a Masters of Education at UNB. Mike is motivated to share relevant labour market information to help First Nations, industry, and government recognize the potential that lies in the Aboriginal workforce.