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Labour problem persists in north, but this time it’s about a lack of people

Campbellton area is crying out for newcomers as population shrinks and greys

From link to article by Colin McPhail Apr 02, 2019

On a rainy Friday in mid-March, members of the Listuguj First Nation walked into the local community hall for a job fair held by Zenabis , a nearby cannabis producer in the midst of a major hiring spree.

Tina Condo and Reuben Isaac were among those interested in the job prospects at the Atholville-based plant. Both are considering a career change while taking a horticulture course on the reserve, and they like the idea of being able to stay in the region and land a job in their line of work.

“This is my community and not only that — I really like the woods,” Isaac said. “To have a job that pays as well as this in the local area is great.”

Although Listuguj is in Quebec, the First Nation is deeply tied to Campbellton and northern New Brunswick, a region known for its economic hardships and high unemployment since some major employers shut down.

“That is really big for this region and that is a big opportunity,” Condo said. “They’re hiring people right from packaging to growing to everything, which is really good for our region.”

Zenabis plans to roughly double its workforce in Atholville, just west of Campbellton, by adding more than 200 jobs this year. It’s not the only place that is hiring, either.

Campbellton Mayor Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin said immigration is key to solving the labour shortage.(Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The Restigouche economy is diversifying, shifting from a handful of massive employers, and the county that was synonymous with a lack of employment is facing a labour shortage.

But who’s going to fill it?

“Nobody’s here. Everybody’s gone,” said Campbellton Mayor Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin.

“We need more carpenters, we need more electricians, we need more nurses. We have full-time positions at the hospital that we can’t fill, because we just don’t have anyone.”

Several northern governments and organizations have been striving to attract newcomers and turn around the region’s fortunes. And for some, the gloom is passing and there’s a hint of positivity in the air.

Labour shortage

Campbellton’s population dipped to a 75-year low of 6,800 in the last census. The average age in the city rose to 48 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, compared with 43 for the province in general.

It’s the same situation in nearby Dalhousie, the community arguably the hardest hit by plant closures.

The labour shortage isn’t unique to Restigouche County, according to Samuel LeBreton, a Fredericton-based economist.

“It’s getting harder and harder in all regions of the province to find employees,” he said.

Economist Samuel LeBreton says it’s getting harder in all parts of the province to find employees with the necessary skills.

But he noted unemployment rates remain high for the Campbellton-Miramichi economic region, which is defined by Statistics Canada and also includes the Acadian Peninsula.

The Campbellton-Miramichi unemployment rate was 17.1 per cent in 2014, which was almost twice as high as the provincial average, before it fell to 12.4 per cent in 2018 — 4.4 percentage points higher than the New Brunswick average. Thanks to a strong economy in the past 10 years, a drop in the unemployment rate was seen across the country, LeBreton said.

The Campbellton-Miramichi participation rate in the labour force decreased over that same period, from 56.7 to 55.9 per cent. LeBreton said that could be attributed to the aging population and losing the younger generations.

“These areas have been the ones with the most negative out-migration,” said LeBreton, who is from Tracadie but had to move south to find work in his line of study.

There are fewer people now to fill the available jobs and “of those people who are unemployed, how many have the qualifications that (employers) are looking for?” he asked.

Attracting newcomers

Every local official that spoke to CBC News said immigration is vital to filling the labour shortage.

“Immigration can definitely fill those labour needs,” said Michelle Arseneault, executive director of the Restigouche Multicultural Association.

“The types of jobs in Restigouche have changed over the last few years and our pool of available [workers] doesn’t necessarily fit those jobs that are available in some cases.”

The association, which helps immigrants settle and integrate in the community, will be launching information campaigns this year for the public and businesses to discuss the idea of a “welcoming community” and the ins and outs of immigration programs.

“There are quite a lot of businesses that have used international recruiting to fill their labour shortage and you’re starting to see it, and I think the community is starting to get curious about it,” she said.

But the region faces barriers to attracting immigrants, Arseneault said. The bilingual nature of the area can pose a challenge for a newcomer seeking employment, she said.

And then there’s a general perception that northern New Brunswick just isn’t the place to live and work.

“‘There’s nothing up north.’ So we hear that a lot in the province,” Arseneault aid. “We hear that from newcomers who were told either at recruitments or when they’re doing exploratory visits that, ‘Oh, don’t bother going up north, there’s nothing there.'”

Employment shift

The region is shifting away from the handful of major employers that supported the area toward a more diversified collection of smaller employers, according to Alex Jones, project manager with CBDC Restigouche.

The Campbellton-based CBDC, which stands for Community Business Development Corp., is one of the many government-funded not-for-profit organizations that help create, expand and modernize small businesses — mainly in smaller, rural communities. It, too, has changed in the past 15 years: it’s grown.

Jones said CBDC Restigouche had six employees 15 years ago, but today there are 25 as the volume of small business financing has increased. Northern employment was centred on mills and power plants 30 years ago, she said.

“That’s changed a lot, but other things have grown, in particular entrepreneurship,” Jones said. “You’ve got more small businesses starting up.”

The unemployment rate in the Campbellton-Miramichi economic region fell from 17.1 per cent in 2014 to 12.1 per cent in 2018. The participation rate decreased slightly over that period. (Matt York/Associated Press)

The organization’s commercial loan disbursement spans all sectors. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, more than $4.3 million was doled out in 85 loans across 12 industries. According to its annual report, those loans maintained 167 jobs and created another 122.

The organization also develops programs to help employers and employees adapt to the changing labour trends, including its Workplace Digital Skills initiative. The bilingual online training platform is designed to strengthen a worker’s digital skills. The program is now available nationwide.

“It develops the workforce,” Jones said. “It’s meeting a need of employers who need the skill levels raised of certain workers at their business, but it also helps develop the labour force as well.”

Attracting business

Two days before the Zenabis job fair, local business representatives were enjoying eggs and bacon in Atholville’s Alma Hall when Mayor Michel Soucy delivered his speech during the second annual business breakfast.

The village is being “proactive” in tackling the labour shortage. Soucy said “we need to be open to immigration,” and that they’re working to spur immigration from France.

“We see there is a demand,” he said, ticking off a list of new or expanding businesses.

Atholville Mayor Michel Soucy said the village has seen commercial growth in recent years. (Colin McPhail/CBC)

Atholville is enjoying an uptick in commercial growth, and the village is hoping to capitalize by promoting the community and the quality of life through a variety of means — a new brochure, video and website.

“We’re facing a situation where, unfortunately, the type of jobs that we have we didn’t always have the people to fulfil those jobs, because of their level of education and the type of jobs available,” Soucy said.

During the inaugural business breakfast, Soucy announced new cash rebates to encourage development.

Dalhousie is following a similar path. Mayor Normand Pelletier is hopeful there will be more takers on the town’s free land offer to reel in new business, and the municipality is also working on improvements to attract newcomers.

Campbellton’s mayor knows stopping the out-migration of young people is just as important as attracting newcomers.

Anglehart-Paulin nodded to the Restigouche Entrepreneurship Centre’s host of youth-focused programming that’s “teaching the kids they can make money in Campbellton as well.”

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