By Chris Marchand
A new report by the regional think-tank Northern Policy Institute (NPI) examining the Northwest’s economy offers a hopeful outlook for the region’s labour market and youth out-migration challenges.
Penned by NPI’s James Cuddy, Settling Down in the Northwest: Stability and Opportunity in the Northwestern Ontario Labour Market finds that while the region still faces challenges in recovering from the steep decline in primary sector employment, the Northwestern labour market has nonetheless delivered very stable employment levels.
“There’s a lot that gets made over the ups and downs in the forest and mining industries, but what we’ve seen in the numbers is that over the last seven years essentially the employment numbers in Northwestern Ontario have stabilized,” said Northern Policy Institute President and CEO Charles Cirtwill. “We have far less variation which suggests that opposed to the ‘Chicken Little’ approach of ‘the sky is falling and all of our communities are going to die’ actually there’s pretty clear evidence that there is a stable, predictable core economy here that doesn’t entirely depend on the mining or forest sectors. That’s not surprising because even during the boom years primary (resource-based) employment was only 13 per cent of the economy with 90 per cent of us working somewhere else.”
As a share of total employment in Northwestern Ontario, the goods-producing sector employed 30 per cent of workers in 1987, which dropped to 26 per cent in 2003 and 17 per cent in 2013. As such, from 1987 to 2013, the services-producing sector has increased its employment share from 70 per cent to 83 percent.
Employment in trade (retail) and healthcare industries have remained the top two employers since 1987. As of 2013, health care and trade made up 19 per cent and 16 per cent of total regional employment, respectively.
“There are growth sectors in Northwestern Ontario,” said Cirtwill. “We’ve seen investment in healthcare, not just in delivery but also in research. You’re also seeing, in Kenora, that they’ve created for themselves culture, tourism and knowledge-based industries that play to our traditional strengths.”
Cirtwill says the presently weak Canadian dollar could indicate an welcome increase in cross-border tourism for the region’s tourism outfitters.
The report focuses especially on the complex relationship between younger persons and the Northwest. With youth out-migration still a major factor, the report states that those young people who are choosing to stay in the Northwest are experiencing higher employment rates and participation than the national average.
“The kids are starting to understand that there is work here and that the chances of finding work here might be better than in Toronto or even Edmonton or Calgary,” said Cirtwill.
The report’s author, James Cuddy, concludes that there is a strong case for continuing to connect youth to our communities through partnerships with industry and post-secondary institutions.
“We can see some of the potential around some of the mining-based training we’re doing at the colleges and a lot more close collaboration between indivdual communities and companies and colleges and universities,” said Cirtwill. “We’re seeing innovations like culturally sensitive education here in Thunder Bay and at Lakehead University. I think that’s another instance where we’ve taken what has traditionally been a weakness of ours and turned it into a strength. We’re graduating students who are going to have an advantage or folks trained in the south in terms of their ability to understand, engage and interact with different cultures. We can’t underestimate the competitive advantage that that could create.”