By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 10th July 2012
A debate over the future of the New Brunswick economy is intensifying. Optimists point to the province’s relatively low operating costs and attractive proximity to large New England markets and the availability of skilled workers as reasons New Brunswick will eventually come back to life.
They claim that boosting competitiveness will revive the fortunes of industries across the province. According to this upbeat assessment, a small number of target industries are poised for breakout growth, alongside promising plays in mining, natural gas and logistics, especially when the expression “value-added” is incorporated into that industry’s export strategy. Whenever economic statistics in the province surge it appears to bolster that hope.
But when disappointing economic growth indicators are released, the pessimists have their day. They argue that New Brunswick has permanently lost its competitiveness in many sectors, that the mainstay forestry sector is still declining after years of downsizing, and that the province will never return to its nineteenth-century status as an economic powerhouse.
They bolster this argument by pointing to the current fiscal challenges of high public debt, public opposition to natural resource development, declining university registrations, a growing demographic crunch, the expense of regional economic stabilization and rising health-care and education costs, all of which conspire to constrain growth.
Both optimists and pessimists are partially correct, but not in equal measure. There can be little doubt that New Brunswick is at a tipping point. This is a defining moment for New Brunswick government, industry and universities.
How successful we are at grasping our own future will be determined by whether New Brunswick companies become serious global competitors. This ambition can’t be achieved overnight, but strategies will need to be rewritten now to make it a priority in the near term.
We still need to come to terms with the fact that the world has changed. Complacency about the future of the New Brunswick economy still features prominently in government, business and universities.
This complacency has been consistent with a pronounced disinclination among the public to support transformational change. But upon closer examination, we should also realize that we have a strong base upon which to build. The current wake-up call represents an opportunity for us to clarify our strengths, direct our investment and create our own distinctive direction.
In New Brunswick, good intentions have not been matched by results. Industry is still inadequate to the challenges of instituting best practices in continuous process improvement, sales management and export orientation. Too many companies continue to play it safe and compete locally or regionally.
It is difficult to not draw the conclusion that too many business owners and executives lack ambition, preferring low-risk mainstream competition instead. This applies not only to startups and early-stage companies but to more mature companies as well.