A short history with a point at the end

Indulge me once again. I’ll give you a quick personal history and then make my point at the end.

I graduated from university in 1991 with an MBA. I was in Virginia at the time but never questioned that I would be coming back to NB to start my career. I remember attending a few job fairs on campus down there but ultimately – I wanted to come home. I came back to New Brunswick, however; and couldn’t find a job. So, I went back to university – UNB – to take a Masters in Economics. I quit that after just over one semester because it was so abstracted from the real world. It was all regression, linear programming and ceteris paribus – and I was ready for some real world.

So, I started serving up resumes again – by the time I was done, I had sent out over 300 resumes and received close to 100 PFO letters – the bulk of which survive until today. Interestingly, one of those PFOs was from an organization called the Miramichi Regional Development Corp. I wonder what would have happened if I had ended up doing economic development with Darryl Black over in Newcastle?

But I digress.

So, NBTel, NB Power, PNB, Darrly Black and 296 other organizations weren’t interested and so I was just about to pack it in (after six months of unemployment) and head back to Alberta where I had worked before.

I literally had my bags packed when I got a call from a cousin telling me that there was a two month work term paying $12/hour working for something called the Department of Economic Development and Tourism (EDT for short or otherwise known as Eat, Drink and Travel). I had no idea what this was but I went for an interview. They were looking for someone to do ‘spreadsheet analysis’ for two months. As it happened, I had taught undergraduates spreadsheets and desktop publishing at university so I was an old hand and they gave me the job (Mike MacBride and Brian Freeman were the interviewers).

Two months turned into six – then a year – then 2 then 3 and change before I was compelled away to NBTel – then the Greater Moncton Econ. Commission and now as a consultant to the ED world.

The reason for this little history is this. The first day on that job, I was blown away. Literally blown away. Here was a little team of guys/gals on the 5th floor of the Centennial Building supported by a guy on the 2nd floor with a bee in his bonnet that were actually trying to attract companies to New Brunswick. I had never heard of such nonsense in my life. Where I got my MBA, the professors were so right wing and anti-government we used to debate the need for a Central Bank and why government’s needed to own and operate roads. Now, I was working for a group that was trying to engineer economic development. It was a shocker to say the least.

But it worked. My ‘spreadsheet’ analysis turned out to be preparing comparative cost models for companies considering locating in New Brunswick. And these models turned into full fledged proposals with full comparisons to other jurisdictions for costs, infrastructure, labour market, etc.

And we won. I wrote over 200 proposals during my time there and we converted almost 15%. Thousands of jobs for companies with names like Canada Trust, UPS, Xerox, IBM and Royal Bank. Much of the Moncton Miracle can be traced back to that effort. The same can be said of the call centre growth around the province.

So, here’s the point.

I came to believe back then in the early 1990s that government could be an agent of change. It could be used to better communities. To support economic renewal. I really believed that ‘economic development’ was a public good and that government – particularly in places like New Brunswick – should throw themselves wholeheartedly into the effort and revitalize a tired and dying economy.

Now fast forward 15 years. Past McKenna’s bittersweet end. Past Frenette and Theriault. Past the Lord. Now, we have a political leadership talking about ‘self-sufficiency’. About attracting industry. About adding 100,000 people to the population in 15 years. Crazy ideas, if you stop to think about it. The Commission’s growth predictions would require Alberta style economic growth.

I still believe that we can get this done. But the change must start in the Centennial Building. Yes, the 2nd floor is good but on the 5th and the 4th and the 3rd and around the province our government workers have to become singularly focused on getting it done.

Instead of the Dept. of Finance officials going around telling the universities to ‘brace’ for the impact of demographic decline, those same officials should be working on a plan to figure out a way to attract more students. Instead of Dept. of Education officials building long term school closure plans, they should be working on ways to make the system the best in Canada. Instead of the Dept. of Health devising plans to downsize and consolidate health care, it should be lookign at ways to leverage the $2 billion in annual expenditures into broader economic development (clinical trials, research, etc.). Instead of government officials geared up to manage decline, they should be revved up to manage growth.

We need wide-eyed, snot nosed kids going into the Centennial Building on their first day and being amazed at what they see. A tourism group building a world class tourism industry. An economic development team attracting industry from all over the globe. A training/education system churning out top quality graduates. An immigration/repatriation department attracting talent from all over the place.

Remember before Service New Brunswick? Don’t tell me that government can’t be innovative or successful. It just takes leadership and motivated/energized people.