Thursday, March 22, 2007

NL pours misplaced millions into immigration

It's not hard to tell when a government is short on ideas and long on fiscal capacity - every problem has the same solution: throw money at it. The NL immigration problem is no exception.

First, let's be clear: NL has an immigration problem. We can't attract immigrants to the province and the ones we manage to attract don't want to stay. As hard as it is to believe, even though the people of this province are the most friendly and hospitable people on earth, that's simply not enough to keep immigrants here. And we do need immigrants in the province.

The conventional wisdom is that we have too many people we can't employ already and that's true. We have a stubbornly high unemployment rate of people who remain unemployed year after year because they can't get a job they can do where they want it when they want it for the period of time they want it. It's a complex problem with many dimensions.

On the other hand, we have jobs in this province we just can't fill because we don't have people at the right location with the right skills and the desire to fill the position.

Besides that, we still have lots of people leaving the province and the ones that are left are not having enough kids to stabilize, let alone grow, the population.

Immigration can fill all those holes.

So what's wrong with this immigration strategy? Not much of anything; it's just another typical government response to an economic problem - proclaim a strategy and throw money at it. And not small amounts of money, either.

Annually, Newfoundland and Labrador receives approximately 450 immigrants and of these, the province retains approximately 36 per cent. The new immigration strategy has firm targets to, within five years, triple the number of immigrants and double the retention rate. That means raise the number of immigrants from staying here from 150 to 750.

Government is going to toss $6M to achieve that which means that those additional 600 immigrants will cost the province $10,000 per head.

I can't remember the last time the province launched a program that would lavish $10k on each recipient but now that we have that in place, just watch the immigrants roll in.

On the other hand, my parents were immigrants to this province more than 50 years ago. At a time when lots of NLer's were on planes and boats heading to Canada, my parents and their 2 young children (my older brothers) packed up all of their belongings, boarded a plane in Montreal and came to St. John's. My mother spoke not a word of English and had no idea what she was getting into. They were coming from on of the most cosmopolitan urban centers on the continent to parts truly unknown to them both.

Why? Jobs.

My parents chose to come to this province in 1952 because there were great job opportunities. And they stayed because they fell in love with the province and people, it was a great place to raise kids and because he could earn more than enough money to keep the family afloat.

Without the opportunity to earn an income, friendliness and good government intentions and plans didn't mean a thing. I'm sure dad would have put the family on the next plane out if he wasn't confident the province offered the kind of economic opportunities he needed to raise his family in the style he wanted for them.

Government immigration strategies had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The moral of the story? It's the economy, stupid. If you want to attract and retain immigrants, create an economic environment (and social environment too) where they will have something to do with their time that makes enough money to support their families.

If you ask immigrants why they leave where they came from to go elsewhere, a small proportion cite political reasons but the overwhelming numbers are economic migrants. They move where they have to to make the money they need for their families.

The best immigration attraction and retention strategy is a vibrant economy and making sure people know about it by developing a strong economic reputation. In other words, a good brand that's more than a cute logo.

That means government has to stop turning their nose up at projects out of pique and has to get on with the job of economic development. Instead of just promising a bright future for some indefinite time, government has to recognise that economic reputation does not come out of good intentions; economic reputation is built on solid accomplishments.

Get on with it.

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