Viewpoint by Jeff Forbes, Vice President

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In recent months, we’ve seen several Atlantic Canadian companies announce layoffs. Though they happen with some frequency, these particular layoffs raised eyebrows. It wasn’t just the timing, coming in the wake of reports we have finally emerged from a prolonged recession. It’s more the unprecedented nature of the layoffs that drew attention.

Traditionally, layoffs have focused on culling under-performers, duplication in positions and individuals near retirement. This time, companies are cutting some of their best employees. In some cases, it’s the economics of the market that are spurring these decisions. In others, it’s the economics of the individual businesses: they’re simply not competitive.
Whatever the reason, these layoffs have become a topic of concern in my conversations with regional business leaders, and for good reason. We have a marketplace congested with high-potential available talent, but few positions to match their skills. Unless we create more opportunities, we will lose them, and potentially our next generation of business leaders, to more lucrative markets.

It’s not just homegrown talent looking elsewhere for opportunities. Atlantic Canada has lagged the rest of the country in attracting immigrants and international students. Given the choice of staying and taking a lesser role in the workforce, or moving to a more active market such as Toronto or even Winnipeg, they opt to relocate.

You might expect demographic shifts to alleviate some market congestion as more boomers begin retiring. Yet companies are choosing to eliminate positions to economize instead of saving them for high-potential talent. Meanwhile, other companies are cutting leadership development programs from their budgets to save money. The result? We are losing skilled labour and leadership candidates. And the question on everyone’s mind is how do we reverse this trend?

One approach is to encourage our existing businesses to expand, taking on more risk and new markets. Traditionally, some of our best companies have focused solely on serving this region, and have done well enough such that they have survived for generations, and have been profitable. In some cases, this local focus was born of limited resources. In others, it reflects a tendency as a region to be modest in our goals, and our abilities – a belief that being an Atlantic Canadian success story is sufficient. Still, in other cases, it may be the complexities or hurdles involved in growth or exporting a product to national or international markets that have held us back.

Yet times have changed. The evolution of business and technology has been such that many barriers to expansion and exporting have all but disappeared. Meanwhile, more companies are coming into our region, competing for shares in a market that is relatively small in size, making it much harder for Atlantic Canadians corporations to thrive by maintaining a local focus. If our companies don’t grow, if they don’t look to other markets for clients, or as potential satellite offices, they may perish.

Another suggestion gaining traction is to grant Canadian citizenship to post-secondary international students who earn their degrees here. This could have several benefits. For one, it would help us address the challenges of an aging demographic. It could motivate existing entrepreneurs to expand, just to accommodate this new talent pool. And we could draw on it to attract new industries to our region, further easing congestion in our marketplace. It could drive those young minds to take an entrepreneurial leap into our Atlantic Economy.

There are many other initiatives to consider, such as renewed investment in skills development for our young employees, so we cultivate and retain a new generation of leaders. Regardless, the key is to encourage existing and new businesses to take risks and be more entrepreneurial. As our companies expand, so will our economy, and the number of lucrative jobs we can offer. Ultimately it means we will be well positioned to hold on to the talented youth of today, and forge the leaders of tomorrow.

 

Jeff Forbes
Jeff Forbes , CMC
President & Managing Partner
902.424.1126
Jeff Forbes is a Vice President and Partner at Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading human capital solutions firm. He has extensive experience in recruiting talent for organizations of all sizes throughout our region.