Brain drain or a lack of oxygen?

We have talked a lot on these pages about the brain drain from New Brunswick.  We talk euphemistically about young people being our top export and there is good data to show a mostly steady net out-migration of young people for several decades.  In addition, there is data that shows a fairly strong correlation between education level and out-migration.  People with very little education tend to be less mobile.

While I am not prepared to try and counter this view, I am starting to think that a lot of bright people decide to stay here but do not find the right environment to see their ideas/talent properly exploited.

In my column last week I talked about David Jonah’s server farm idea in the late 1990s where he was proposing that Moncton become a hub for data – his idea included a ‘page’ for every resident of Moncton where they could put up personal information, share with friends, link with product/service providers, share ideas, etc.  It’s a stretch of enormity to say this could have been Facebook – the confluence of events/timing that led to Facebook were almost biblical – but he did propose an early version of social media/Web 2.0 well before any of these other versions – Myspace, et. al really took office.

Maybe there isn’t enough private money sloshing around to find speculative ideas here.  Maybe we rely too much on government for this even though governments are mostly hardwired to avoid risk.   Maybe people roll their eyes at concepts that fall outside of a normal band.

But in the end, the concept that you have to fail before you succeed holds – even in jurisdictional terms.  Tom Peters has spilled millions of barrels of ink on this issue – encouraging people to fail.  To take risk.  To fail quickly.

It is likely that New Brunswick’s structural challenge has included both – a brain drain of talent and a lack of oxygen for those that decide to stay.

11 thoughts on “Brain drain or a lack of oxygen?

  1. Excellent blog, couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m glad you mentioned Facebook, because I did some research and didn’t really know much about it. I was GOING to say that Facebook was started by a student for very little money, blah, blah, blah.

    But it seems you hit on something important in the technology world. Yet another student (besides the ones suing Zuckerburg for stealing their ideas) is in the NY Times and apparantly he has emails confirming that his “ConnectU” site was a precursor to Zuckerburg’s and that Zuckerburg actually used his site.

    You can go to Wikipedia and read up on the history of Facebook, and it appears that Facebook got out of the gate because Zuckerburg was the first to move to Silicon Valley in order to find financing. It also shows, that like Gates, he’s quite a smarmy little creep who really doesn’t deserve what he ultimately got.

    But the point on financing should also be that you will NEVER compete with Silicon Valley, and no matter how much Richard wants to hype it up-the numbers will just never add up. However, that doesn’t mean ANY place can’t be an innovator. As I’ve said before, you can go to and download a FREE tutorial on how to program apps and games for mobile devices. So the reason at least 50% of kids getting out of public school can’t do this is…..what exactly? Oh, but at least they’ve read Richard the third right?!

    There is no reason the government can’t run exactly like “Dragons Den”, it would be even better because those people making the decisions would be accountable to voters. Instead, as we all know, its primarily your connections, but at least as we saw with Radian 6, those who pound a little pavement and find at least SOME private investment, are put at the top of the list.

    I know Richard says there’s no money anywhere, even though I happen to know of at least 20 million that got thrown out the window on a project that never saw the light of day, so take that 20 million, or even half a million that comes from cutting MLA’s salaries, and start a ‘lottery’ that rewards innovators instead of the desperate. That program itself would also be pretty innovative.

  2. Trying too hard to retain talent will also reduce oxygen. Boston has plenty of venture capital. But the parochial attitudes concerning talent handicap the region.

    Vibrant regions attract the best and brightest. Also, you should know that San Jose and San Francisco are domestic migration losers. That’s the case with many dynamic cities and regions.

    Better policy starts with a more sophisticated look at demographics. The concern about brain drain is a red herring.

  3. Emphasizing local talent and investing in the population is not just being concerned with a ‘brain drain’. X number of people will obviously leave for any number of reasons, as David says, the concern has to be with the people who WOULD stay if they had a job to stay to. And given the fatkat example, its also with bringing in to the workforce. I know a lot of animators-mostly unemployed-and if FatKat or some other company like that were around, you’d have creative people from all over the world flocking to NB. I knew people who moved from Toronto to Miramichi and absolutely loved it there.

  4. Initiatives “emphasizing local talent and investing in the population” are a dime a dozen. That’s the traditional approach to workforce development. I see David’s main point as risk aversion. Those who stay are the most risk averse.

    Migration itself is an entrepreneurial act. Leaving home is a risky proposition. You won’t spark more risk-taking by enabling risk aversion.

  5. The “brain drain” data analysis generally positions emigration as a response to education (education as an explanatory variable). I believe, as Jim has indirectly pointed out, that this method is using education as a proxy for identifying entrepreneurial behavior (spurious correlation error).

    To provide a local example…

    Whatever success we may associate with the McKenna government’s efforts in regards to technology or contact centres investments, in my opinion, was not solely due to the direct effects of stimulating contact centres/technology investments – but rather the influence it had on the population believing we were good at “something”. This has a positive effect on productive behaviour. I believe that identity and pride within the population are key positive influence on the more obvious variables we usually hunt for – like migration patterns, employment, productivity, etc.

    In the 90’s (re: “McKenna years”) many people, including myself, stayed here (I left and came back) because we believed that “big things” could be done here. I’m not talking superficial chants of “yay team”, but rather a deep rooted confidence in the structure of the region. At least for my personality type… the “quality of life” arguments (that get hauled out by politicians to justify why I should stay) are seriously misguided. 1) These factors aren’t going to be much better than other regions, and will appeal less to the younger demographics 2) These factors are a lessor consideration to issues of “feel” of the culture, confidence found within the region – and the ability for me, and my children, to accomplish “things”.

    In about a month, I’ll become one of those outmigration statistics. I recognize I’m just one “sample” in this; and not all people think alike (thankfully); but there are at least a few people that think this way…

    Over the past couple years, I have engaged in many conversations with foreign students at a local university – and I have not found one student that sees this place as where they want to make a life. I was a student, a peer, and therefore not percieved as an authority figure interviewing them… so I might have unique insights into how these students talk amongst themselves about this place. To go even further, I would characterize their thinking not as the result of what they see, but what they “feel” about the place – and what their peers say. From a complex set of facts, subtle social learning’s and perceptions – these young people (from the set I’m discussing) have concluded that New Brunswick doesn’t seem to be a place that they think they can reach their potential. Mention Toronto, Vancouver, or Canada in general – and it’s like you’re talking about land of milk and honey… and they will go to one of these place – if they have a chance – most likely, without a job offer, or due in any part to the lure of “wide open spaces”, laid back culture, and walks along beaches with “the warmest water north of the Carolina’s ”.

  6. IF they were a ‘dime a dozen’, then how about naming just three. Go to BNB’s website and try to find them. There are PROGRAMS for various businesses, but that’s not what I”m talking about. I’m talking about what David talks about when he mentions serious proposals to bring in foreign direct investments-namely, real programs to develop the end result. The universities now have a couple of programs, but like the above post mentions, all these programs do is train people to leave.

    I don’t share the pessimism of the above poster, I also know quite a few people and know quite a few ex patriots in various organizations here in Ontario, most know very well what the issues are back home, but most would jump in an instant to return home. And like I said, you can read fatkat’s old blogs to see how much those animators loved living in the marimichi.

    Some people naturally gravitate to big cities, and many of those will be young people, there is nothing wrong with that, and its silly to try to ‘be’ a Toronto or Vancouver. It’s a global world, and what has to be done is to at least get in the game. So take a look at something like “The Republic of Doyle” which has Newfoundland with a small industry that even gets the attention of Russell Crowe. This is the kind of stuff that gets young people juiced-us old geezers don’t care. But that’s why it was such a hit to see the film production credit go, because this is an industry where people will literally ignore any dreams of wealth in order to practise their craft.

    There is no reason though that a small population can’t mirror the better aspects of larger cities. There is nothing wrong with ‘community theatre’, yet few people bother to even think of doing such a thing. Meanwhile, the media goes crazy for U2, while great NB musicians can’t even find a media outlet to show their stuff.

    So NB is not that structurally different in ‘living standards’. Here in Waterloo there is LESS to do at night than in NB, the malls have even fewer hours, and Fredericton has more shopping malls than this city which has twice the population. There ARE more cultural opportunities, in the past few years I’ve seen numerous new artistic schools and theatre groups but again, the only thing lacking in NB is the desire and innovation. And when the public doesn’t do it, the government should act as a motivator, otherwise, all you get from the public is what we’ve seen-a population that ONLY mobilizes when there is something they feel the need to OPPOSE.

  7. When I write “dime a dozen”, I mean universally. Even if NB hasn’t tried this approach, everywhere else has. Take a look around and see what works, what doesn’t.

    What do you know about “Workforce Expansion Initiative and Labour Force Development” in Saint John?

    I recommend reading the following opinion piece about industry clusters from Vivek Wadhwa:

    Then read this research about non-competes:

    It isn’t about who stay or who goes. The key is who is moving to NB. A good place to start is with those expats you mention who might return.

  8. I moved from Calgary to Sackville, NB last June and after a few months was able to get large, very well paying, enterprise-scale IT projects from home for 2 US clients and 1 BC govt client. I don’t need startup funding or any other type of oxygen.

    The ability to work remotely thanks to technology is changing the game.

  9. “and I have not found one student that sees this place as where they want to make a life”

    That has been true for at least 40 yrs. Certainly it was the case when I left NB in the 70s. Yes there have been brief periods when there were feelings of optimism, but they did not last long. People seem to be waiting for a big thing to happen to turn the province around.

    Govt policies to change directions (incentives, education and training) will require funding diversions. Any required re-allocation of govt funds means that there will be resistance from those who prefer the status quo. Politicians willing to brave the heat are thus needed. I don’t see any of those around at the moment.

    Other jurisdictions have shown us what works and what does not. R&D investments and encouraging innovation is one route. Fredericton for example has several small IT outfits that directly or indirecty resulted from research pgms at UNB. A govt that had the guts to direct our universities to increase such spin-off production (via re-allocating resources from non-science and non-engineering pgms into sci and eng R&D) would be welcome. The result would develop and encourage local entrepreneurs as well as attract new entrepreneurs to NB.

  10. Not sure of Jim’s point, but since I agree with almost everything in those two links then best to let any disagreement rest. As those two articles point out, and as Will’s contribution attests to, the whole point of government policy needs to be PEOPLE. And thats’ the point I keep trying to make. ED policies that are aimed at numbers and ‘theories’ ultimately get you nowhere. Norway is sort of a separate example, while lots of norwegians pack up and leave, relatively speaking there is a large homogonous culture with oil money. It’s a lot different than in NB, where people routinely pack up and leave for ontario or Alberta.

    But to dumb it down, what needs to happen is that more people need to know how to do what Will does. Not only is that true in computing, its also true in animation and entertainment. I remember a news report years ago about a writer who lived in Cape Breton and made his money by writing ‘movie of the week’ for one of the big american stations.

    To go to an unpopular point, that is what is meant by the ‘creative’ economy. If you aren’t going to have slave wages and no environmental regulations, then you need an innovative population. While david gives david a pass, his whole ‘cut 2% off the education budget-I don’t care how’, is the wrong move. Education certainly needs to be addressed, but he is refusing to address it except insofar as cuts are concerned.

    Some of the big problems that contribute to that is NB’s insular outlook-the fact that Irving’s media is so myopic that people don’t even know what goes on in Maine or Nova Scotia (let alone public policy in NB).

    To go back to Tim’s point, I know lots of NBers here, but while most would move to NB IF they could, they aren’t in Will’s industry and don’t have the luxury of simply living where they want. So its a tough sell to say “hey, why don’t you start a successful company and then move back here to NB?” I know many in the life sciences, and several even engaged in start ups, but there is SO little going on in NB that its simply not an option.

    By the bye, its policies like environmental degradation and shale gas extraction (if it leads to water, pollution, and traffic problems) that make NB and even harder sell to people like Will or me. I have less traffic in Waterloo at dinnertime than Fredericton does.

    I’d like to hear more from Will to see the exact reasons why he made Sackville his choice of residence. My sister worked in Sackville in the eighties and absolutely hated it, but that was quite some time ago.

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