Expectations are a funny thing. These days a Boston Red Sox fan automatically expects their team to compete for the World Series, while a Washington Nationals fan (like yours truly) just wants their team to not be blown out every night on the baseball diamond. The same thing happens in the area of economic development, or a by-product of successful economic development, population growth.
New Brunswick's population is now actually trending upward. After population declines in both 2005 and 2006, the provincial population grew by 2,600 people in 2007 and has up ticked slightly again in the first quarter of 2008.
The growth is being fuelled by positive in-migration (people moving in from other parts of Canada) and immigration (people moving in from other countries). In the five quarters from January 2007 to March 2008, the province boasted a net in-migration of 1,206 people. In the immediate preceding five quarters, there was a net out-migration of 4,248. To put that in perspective, if in-migration continues at the current rate, it will be 2011 before we make up the population loss from the out-migration in 2006 alone. Immigration is also trending upward. According to Statistics Canada estimates, net international migration was 1,492 people in 2007 up slightly from 1,298 in 2006.
However, in the first quarter 2008, there were 308 more deaths in New Brunswick than births. After all the predictions, we have now arrived at the point where the natural population increase in New Brunswick has finally turned negative. To sustain or grow our population in the future, we will need to rely on attracting migrants from the rest of Canada and immigrants from around the world.
And that comes back to my point about expectations. In the 1970s, New Brunswick had a natural population increase of 62,000 people and an average annual population growth rate of over 1%. In the late 2000s, we are now witnessing a natural population decline and a population growth rate of 0.1% and this is considered good news. Even with this most recent growth "spurt," New Brunswick's population growth is six times slower than the national rate of growth.
And, as I have pointed out in a previous column, the rise of the migrant worker from New Brunswick clouds this picture somewhat. While we don't know the accurate figure, at least several thousand New Brunswickers are working in Alberta and other provinces but showing their residence as being in New Brunswick. This means it is likely our real population is continuing to decline.
The truth of the matter is that population is correlated to economic development. If we put programs in place to repatriate ex-New Brunswickers or attract more immigrants and there is no economic opportunity here, they will either not come at all or leave not long after arriving here. And there is that thorny issue of wages.
In the 1990s, when we were trying to keep people from moving away from New Brunswick, the jobs at $9-$14/hour were enough to convince at least some of our people not to leave. However, it is a whole different issue altogether when you are trying to get people to uproot from their current location (either elsewhere in Canada or other countries) and move here for $9-$14/hour jobs.
It is critical, then, that our economy starts churning out new jobs at higher wage rates. The energy-related projects in Saint John mostly offer wage scales above average. The nascent life/health sciences sector in the province tends to offer higher wages. Unfortunately, many of the sectors that are growing including retail and others services are still on the lower end of the wage spectrum and it will become increasingly harder to find people for those jobs.
Eventually, we may have to rethink our immigration efforts and start targeting countries and individuals for whom work in the lower wage sectors of the economy would be a major economic step up.
One thing is for sure. If we want our population increase to continue, we will need to see a far more robust employment situation than we have witnessed so far in 2008. In the first six months of 2007, New Brunswick saw a rise in total employment by 3,700 people. So far in 2008, Statistics Canada estimates that total employment has dropped by 2,100 people. I think it is likely that the employment situation should turn positive but the true impact of the challenges felt by the forestry industry may just be manifesting itself now.
"If you build it, they will come." In many ways, economic development is a bit like a field of dreams. Strong economies with great employment prospects tend to attract people. Weak economies with limited prospects repel people. hope New Brunswick's field of dreams still lies ahead.
David Campbell is an economic development consultant based in Moncton. He writes a daily blog, It's the Economy Stupid, at www.davidwcampbell.com. His column appears Wednesdays.