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JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

The ‘lost boys’ of New Brunswick

Herb Emery

New Brunswick has critical labour shortages. So why has the province abandoned its young male population, when it needs to grow the province’s workforce and population?

Residents are well aware the population is aging as the numbers of young New Brunswickers have fallen due to fewer births and chronic out-migration. This is particularly true of younger men. In turn, the aging of the population means that we are facing a declining labour force, particularly among the lower wage-earning age groups.

This focus on aggregate population statistics should shift our focus toward finding more workers, either through more immigration and retention or through better aligning training and education investments to meet provincial labour market needs.

To address labour shortages or declining post-secondary enrolments, a natural approach would be to increase the supply and participation of groups in society that are not participating to their full potential. Provinces across Canada are seeking to increase workforce participation of women, as well as older and disabled adults. They’re also encouraging more women and children from lower-income households to pursue university education.

But those positive approaches to addressing labour shortages and declining university enrolments has coincided with indifference toward what has been happening with our young male population.

What New Brunswickers and their political leaders may not realize is that for decades, they have been wasting the sizeable resource of young men in the province. Up to the ages of 25, men outnumber women. For example, for the ages of 18 to 24, New Brunswick had around 32,000 men in 2017 and 29,000 women.

In our province, women in this age group have had a slightly higher labour force participation and employment rates than men, by about five per cent since 2008. Think of the gap this way: If men aged 18 to 24 had the same labour force participation rate as women of the same age, then annually New Brunswick would have around 1,500 more workers.

The lower labour force participation rate of young men is not due to a lack of investing in education. Post-secondary education statistics are not the easiest to find and use, but I estimate that around one-third of men 18 to 24 in New Brunswick are enrolled in a post-secondary program compared to one-half of women in the same age group.

Men and women enrolled in community colleges in the province are about equal in number, but in universities, women outnumber men by a wide margin. Enrolment of men in New Brunswick universities is around 25 per cent for those aged 18 to 24, compared to 36 per cent of women in the same age group. If the male participation rate in university education matched that of females, then there would be 4,000 more students enrolled in the province’s universities annually.

Compounding the gender gap in post-secondary investment is that men are much more likely to not complete a university degree once started. Labour force participation rates increase with the level of education, so if New Brunswick increased the number of men graduating from its post-secondary system, then the potential increase in the size of the labour force is greater than 1,500 per year.

As a strategy for increasing the size of the workforce in New Brunswick, raising the post-secondary participation rate would seem logical. The young male population is already here providing an immediate base for post-secondary enrolment. The province has capacity in its university and college programs, which were resourced for the enrolment peak of a few years ago. The public money is already being spent.

While the participation of young men in post secondary education and the labour market is lower in New Brunswick than in the rest of Canada, the gaps between young men and young women are common across Canada. That tells us that the reasons for the gender gap are not specific to New Brunswick, but instead reflective of Canadian social trends.

Still, we don’t know what is driving the trend of leaving the boys behind. Why have young men become disengaged from the labour force and from pursuing post-secondary education? Are we losing them in the elementary and secondary schooling levels, or are we failing to offer post-secondary programs that would interest them?

My suspicion is that we don’t know the answer to these questions because we aren’t aware, or perhaps don’t even care, what has happened with boys. But if New Brunswick wants to address its demographic and labour force challenges, then we should be aware, and care, about this perennial squandered opportunity for labour force development.

New Brunswick cannot afford to be as wasteful with its human resources as the rest of Canada.

Herb Emery is a Brunswick News columnist and the Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick.

This article first appeared in Brunswick News publications – Nov. 21, 2018

The JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick is an independent research program made possible through the generosity of J.D. Irving, Ltd. The funding supports arms-length research conducted at UNB.