Rethinking Moncton

While I am based in Moncton, New Brunswick I have the privilege of working with communities all over New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Ontario and the State of Maine. But an important client of mine over the years has been Enterprise Greater Moncton.

It’s a bit of a shame to see John Thompson leave as CEO of EGM. I have always felt that the heads of economic development organizations should stick around at least five and up to 10 years to give themselves time to get things done. In any organization, two or three years running the place doesn’t give much time.

But John said from the beginning he wouldn’t be there long. He viewed the job as a short term opportunity and I think he has done good job.

Now my thoughts turn to the next leader of the organization. I have no doubt that EGM will be able to find an able replacement -from within or without – but the question for me is actually quite simple. What will be the sector (s) that drive Greater Moncton’s economy over the next 10-15 years and what will be the role of EGM in catalyzing that sector development?

This is not an easy question. In 1989/1990 when Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe first decided to act together and create the Greater Moncton Economic Commission, the term “call centre” or any related term was nowhere to be found in the strategic plans or strategies for the community. It started to find its way into subsequent plans and was a mainstay by the late 1990s. And, despite the criticism the industry has garnered from some quarters, the call centre/back office industry has anchored Moncton’s growth resulting in something like 5,000 new jobs over 15 years. ExxonMobil has three facilities in Moncton. UPS has 800 employees. Royal Bank, on and on.

In addition to the call centre sector, Moncton has witnessed strong growth in its IT industry. I was surprised to see recently that there are more people working in IT jobs in Moncton than many other similarly sized cities in Canada. This has gone under the radar because many of the jobs are not in small IT firms but in larger firms in other sectors such as Medavie Blue Cross, Assumption Life, Altantic Lottery Corp., etc.

Of course, Moncton has been witnessing strong growth in retail and personal services and other industries but those are not stimulative – those are reactive. Construction, retail, personal services and most professional service sectors grow reactively – not proactively. For example, 5,000 call centre jobs leads to the need for 50 new lawyers. Adding 50 new lawyers won’t lead to 5,000 call centre jobs. Same for retail and the others. Now, of course, there is the multiplier effect as 50 new lawyers will create the need for two new food service workers and three new retail workers.

So what will be those stimulative industries for Moncton? Those industries that are not based on the local market but providing goods and services beyond our borders?

I have some optimism that the IT industry will continue to grow here. I hope that a more deliberate provincial approach and strategy is developed on which Moncton can build but I think we can expect more jobs in IT over the next 10-15 years. As I said above, what then is the role of EGM (if any) in catalyzing this sector’s growth?

I expect the call centre/back office industry will plateau and slowly decline over the next 10-15 years. Not precipitously but slowly. The trick will be convince these firms as they move more and more to the Web, that they should put those technical jobs in Moncton. But I don’t expect this sector to be a major growth engine over the next 10-15 years.

Life sciences? Maybe but not based on what we have seen in the past 10 years. There are nuggets of very interesting LS activity here that could be the start of something but I think EGM could play an important role as catalyst here.

Aerospace? Not likely. That stuff is mostly carved up in Ottawa among Quebec and Ontario with scraps going to Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Manufacturing? Not likely – although the whole environmental technologies sector has interesting global potential.

What else?

That should be the single question for candidates for the EGM top job. I am not saying they need to have a concrete answer to this question but they need to realize its primacy in the equation.

Sometimes economic development agencies get caught up in the work itself – marketing, small business development, labour market efforts, youth, etc. etc. etc. but at the top – you need to have a clear understanding of the goal – the long term sustainability of the Greater Moncton economy such that it can be a great place to live and work.