Times & Transcript (Moncton)
Government must shift some of its funding away from keeping fishery and forestry jobs afloat and instead move towards building opportunities in green energy and manufacturing, says one of the two businessmen tasked with charting the province's economic future. Francis McGuire and Gilles LePage, co- chairmen of the province's self-sufficiency task force, released their second discussion paper, focusing on reversing the province's labour shortage. A skilled labour shortage is the biggest challenge facing the province, according to the report, a shift from decades of concern regarding high unemployment rates. "There are too many jobs and not enough people," McGuire said. "It is difficult to come to terms with that, given the fact that high unemployment has been a factor in this province for so long and so much public policy has been built around it. But in the future, the question is how do we find people to fill the jobs?" Premier Shawn Graham has set the goal of New Brunswick becoming economically self-sufficient by 2026. With a population of about 748, 400, the province needs to increase its population by more than 100,000 people over the next 20 years - an increase of about 5,000 people per year, said McGuire. In order to chart a new economic path, the province must increase exports in all sectors, said McGuire. Most of the job growth will come from energy, tourism, new "green" technologies, new aquaculture opportunities and call centres, stated McGuire. Recently announced energy projects for the Saint John area, including a proposed second refinery, will require thousands of skilled workers within the next two years. As well, an enhanced extra-mural program allowing the province to deliver as many services as possible to patients in their own homes would make New Brunswick a leader in "e-health" with the potential of significant export opportunities and the creation of thousands of high-paying jobs, he added. "You're going to see, on the other hand, that some of our natural resource areas are going to face challenges," said McGuire. "We believe that you're going to see over the coming years, just through market forces, fewer, but stronger, sawmills and fewer, but stronger, fish processing plants." For example, the report is suggesting government offer a buy-out package to sawmill owners who voluntarily give up their wood allocation, allowing it to be given to the remaining forestry companies. The greater wood supply would give the remaining companies more money to modernize their operations and, in turn, increase productivity and wages. Along the same line, the wages of the thousands of fish processing plant workers, located mainly in the Acadian Peninsula, need to increase dramatically, said McGuire. The average fish plant worker makes $12,700 a year, well below the national average income of $38,000. Industry and government must strive to double the incomes of employees, said McGuire. However that means a significant number of jobs, particularly those with the lowest incomes, will be lost. Marc Arsenault, president of the New Brunswick Forest Products Association, said he realizes inefficient companies aren't likely to survive. However government has a role to play in helping companies modernize by eliminating red tape and offering incentives to businesses willing to invest in new technology, he said. Arsenault said the report raises some concern by suggesting government shouldn't help businesses with the rising cost of energy and instead focus on energy efficiency and green technologies. Arsenault agreed NB Power needs to act as a business but said industries aren't prepared for rate shock. However he praised the report's suggestion that the province increase the allowable wood cut by reducing the amount of Crown land set aside for conservation purposes from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. "We know that we can grow more wood, " said Arsenault. "There's no doubt about that. And we can be more efficient, it makes sense." But for Toby Couture, a researcher with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, the task force's report doesn't make sense at all. The task force is seemingly contradicting itself by suggesting self- sufficiency will be achieved by relying on exports, he said. The report reads like a business plan to benefit large industries at the expense of the environment, said Couture. "This is not a self-sufficiency strategy," he said. "It's a strategy of self-sacrifice for our province."