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Manufacturing in New Brunswick continues to contribute to employment across our province, driving economic growth in the region. The industry has been resistant throughout the years, compared to other jurisdictions that have suffered a decline, and many manufacturers in N.B. have been in business for decades, including many New Brunswick Business Council (NBBC) members.

JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

NBBC recently partnered with the University of New Brunswick for its JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick, the first of what is to be an annual forum which was held September 25-26, 2019, in Fredericton. Manufacturers, government officials, academics, and other stakeholders gathered together to identify trends and common challenges within the industry, and discuss evidence-based research on how to advance the manufacturing sector as a whole.

At the event, Adrienne O’Pray, President and CEO of NBBC, moderated a panel discussion on “Meeting Skills and Labour Supply Needs for Manufacturers.” The panel examined evidence of worker shortages, cyclical and longer-term drivers of labour market transformation, and policy options for addressing challenges such as:

  • Reskilling and talent recruitment
  • Need for capital investment in modernization and automation
  • Impact of tariffs and exchange rates
  • Globalization of markets and the need to up our productivity game
  • Impact of location (travel expenses, freight costs) on competitiveness

But with obstacles come opportunities. Our province has very little constraint for expansion space and lower costs of living, short commutes, and great work cultures make New Brunswick a wonderful place to live and do business. We need to celebrate the unique manufacturing strengths in New Brunswick to propel the industry forward.

Key Takeaways from the Roundtable

Some of the biggest takeaways from the JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick include:

  • Our biggest potential for growth is supporting the expansion of output/sales from firms operating in N.B. today. Bruce Simpson, senior partner of McKinsey & Company Canada, estimates that with achievable productivity gains, we could have an additional $1 billion in GDP per year.
  • Capital investment to increase labour productivity is needed to remain competitive. This province has potential to grow its manufacturing sector, but only if we start investing in infrastructure and equipment to increase productivity so that it’s less labour intensive.
  • Government needs to celebrate and support our regional “champions” and educate the broader public that although these firms are large for N.B., they are but minnows globally. Government can assist manufacturers by becoming “risk-sharing partners,” carefully monitoring what’s working and what isn’t.
  • By supporting small- and medium-size firms, we can apply productivity improving approaches like Lean, better information surrounding successful productivity increases by manufacturers, directly improve productivity, and prepare firms for automation opportunities.
  • More dialogue between business and educational institutions, including post-secondary education, to align education and training programs with employer needs (including soft skills) will allow us to make more of the workforce we have here.
  • Identifying a leader/owner for the skills attraction and skills development initiatives we need in the province is important.
  • Having a government that considers and cares about business competitiveness when it examines tax policy, energy costs, labour policies, and regulation.

Remember: the approach manufacturers took to success in the past won’t necessarily lead to success in the future. Manufacturers in NB need to consider using labour in different way to combat challenges, expanding our thinking and becoming more imaginative about where opportunities lie.

Giving N.B. Manufacturers a Voice

NBBC will continue to advocate for policy to help manufacturers survive and thrive in New Brunswick, but businesses can also diversify their perspectives and frame problems in new ways to find creative, sometimes unexpected solutions.

Jennifer Wilson, Senior Adviser at Atlantic Industries Limited, who was a panelist for the afternoon session, encourages manufacturers to adopt proactive, pre-mortem thinking (imagining what’s possible in the future and how we can get there) rather than reactive, post-mortem thinking. She says hope is at the centre of opportunity for this province, and NBBC couldn’t agree more. This doesn’t mean “wish and a prayer” hopeful thinking, but applied hope. It means staying positive and working collaboratively to advance manufacturing competitiveness for a better future.