The Moncton Miracle: Redux
I was born in the Moncton Hospital. My parents were living in Petitcodiac at the time. I don’t remember much about the Hub City in the early 1970s as we moved away when I was five. I do remember as I got older visiting the city and eating at the A&W drive in - there was also a bright pink house on Mountain Road that always caught my eye.
The old timers tell of a Moncton in the 1970s and 1980s as a place in decay. Boarded up windows on downtown shops and, on particularly windy days, garbage blowing through the streets from the nearby dump built conveniently near both the downtown and the river.
When I first moved to Moncton, David Jonah regaled me of stories from that time such as the “Greater Moncton. We’re OK” Chamber of Commerce effort in the 1980s. Talk about setting expectations. Not the ‘best’ or ‘really good’ just OK.
Looking at the long term data, things were never really as bad as some of the war stories. Yes, the CN shops closure was a big bang but many of the workers retired and others got severance. There were other closures along the way but they were offset and then some by the rise of the new Acadian (and other) entrepreneurs in the 1980s/1990s and the business services sector.
Things kind of stalled around the time of the Great Recession. From September 2009 to September 2014 the wasn’t much growth in the workforce. According to Statistics Canada there were 80,300 in the workforce in September 2009 and 80,500 by September 2014.
As of September 2021 there were 97,000 in the Moncton CMA workforce, a growth rate of 20% since 2014. The really strong growth kicked in around 2018.
Now I know many of you will rush to conclusions.
Mayor Dawn Arnold was elected in mid 2016 and has presided over the second fastest CMA growth in Canada since 2017 (growth in the size of the workforce and total employment between September 2017 and September 2021).
Or you might say old Campbell had a hand as he co-authored the first Greater Moncton Immigration Strategy in 2014 - when the most recent growth spurt started - and co-authored the second in 2018.
(just kidding on that last point).
However, I don’t think it is a coincidence that Moncton CMA workforce growth started to really take off after the emergence of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. Again, lots of hands in that pie but I did author a white paper while at the NB Jobs Board in 2016 making the case for what eventually became the AIPP.
We don’t have the data specific to urban centres, but across the province the number of immigrants in the workforce has grown by 56% between September 2016 and September 2021 with the bulk of the growth in the past two years. I suspect when the Census numbers are out next year, it will show the Moncton CMA attracted a large share of those immigrants.
The immigration plan, the AIPP, the LIP - I think history will confirm these three initiatives converged and played a big role in the region’s success since 2014.
What’s next for the Armpit of the Maritimes? (Thanks, Barbara Frum, it’s kinda growing on me).
The community could end up a victim of its own success. Housing costs, like many places, have spiked here in the past year but the household income profile could mean a harder hit here. In 2019, the average family in the Moncton CMA reported $4,000 less income compared to Saint John and $8,300 compared to Halifax. If you isolate just couple families (as opposed to lone parent and persons not in families), they reported $6,300 less income in Moncton compared to Freddy Beach and $14,500 less than in the Halifax CMA. That translates into considerably less disposable income to divert to increased housing costs.
And, I would argue, that Moncton is more threatened by the coming automation and robotics wave. All those warehouses? Many of the jobs will be automated. Those 8,000 working to make hotel reservations and support your insurance claims? Automation is expected there too. Longer term? The trucking sector? Retail?
Like the 1980s, Moncton will need to steer into the skid. Embrace automation and robotics. Be a place that leads on innovation. Just make sure there is a new generation of entrepreneurs deploying capital and building new stuff. That has been the secret sauce in the past and will be key moving forward.
I wouldn’t bet against the Hub.