When Newfoundland and Labrador’s titans of industry gathered at the Delta Hotel ballroom for the St. John’s Board of Trade Business Bootcamp on Monday morning, the atmosphere was electric. Some of this was the business community’s thrill for returning to in-person networking after two long pandemic years. But most of the excitement grew out of the rosy outlook—and lucrative opportunities—for the province’s booming technology, film, mining, and energy sectors presented that morning.
The mood was so optimistic, in fact, that even the crisis facing the province’s health care system got a sunny gloss.
Chief among the cheerleaders was a remarkably relaxed Premier Andrew Furey, whose candid discussion with Board of Trade Second Vice Chair Kevin Casey opened the conference. Furey was comfortably in his element as he walked the business community through his vision for the province.
“I will say that we didn’t have to jump through any hoops,” Casey told the audience as he and the Premier settled in for coffee. “We reached out to Andrew on the spot, and on the same day he said yes. That speaks to me to how important business is on his agenda.”
“Certainly business attraction and development is something that [is] emphasized in every meeting that we have,” Furey later told the crowd. “[Finance] Minister [Siobhan] Coady does a great job representing business interests, especially [the Board of Trade].”
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Emphasis on Immigration and Population Growth
Over the course of the roughly 30 minute chat, Furey laid out the challenges he saw facing Newfoundland and Labrador—primarily the post-pandemic “labour paradox” and looming demographic crisis. But he also outlined the opportunities he saw for the province: a booming technology sector, and the promise of low-carbon mining, renewable energy, and hydrogen production in the years ahead.
Critically, the Premier explained, there is a skills mismatch between the current labour force and what is needed by new and growing industries—particularly tech. This would be addressed by “upstream” measures like refining the K-12 curriculum to include more programming, as well as pressuring Memorial University to increase their computer science and business graduates.
“We’ve had a concerted effort to really change the workforce,” Furey explained. “That can be terrifying. But at the same time, we’ve done it before. Newfoundland and Labrador is unique across the country in that we’ve had a historic moment where we’ve changed our workforce—the cod moratorium. We had forty thousand people working in one industry and all of a sudden they weren’t there anymore. So we pivoted to oil and gas.”
The other major issue is an aging population, particularly in rural areas.
“If you go to any fish plant around the province, everybody working in those plants is around 60 years old,” the Premier said. “There’s a demographic problem with respect to the job mismatch. And one of the ways to help fill that mismatch—and rejuvenate these beautiful communities that we all adore—is through a healthy immigration policy, to make sure that we’re matching the employers’ needs with workers.”
“If we don’t address the demographics, everything else is just an accounting exercise and we won’t have anyone to fulfill the immense opportunity in this province,” he continued. “So we put an immediate emphasis on immigration and population growth.”
This emphasis involved setting up five dedicated desks within the Department of Immigration, Population Growth, and Skills to focus on recruiting groups whose expat communities already have a critical mass in the province.
“We want to make sure we’re targeting those specific countries or specific regions where we already know we have a significant population here,” Furey explained. “So for example, Bangladesh. There’s a lot of Bangladeshis here because of the university. So we’re targeting that.”
These focused immigration desks are designed to streamline the immigration process as much as possible—not only handling paperwork for new arrivals, but also connecting them with employers who may be wrestling with a local skills gap.
“You don’t need to know that you need to fill out form XYZ and subsequently subform 4AB, blah blah blah,” the Premier said. “What you do need to know is that there is a job here and an immigrant who can fill that job. Our desk wants to be the immigration lawyer—we want to do that internally and we want to make it as streamlined as possible.”
This type of targeted immigration desk is the model the province successfully deployed in Ukraine to bring refugees to the province, Furey added.
“A face at the first point of contact is incredibly important when it comes to immigration,” he explained. “It shows that you care. And it gives them a path. The bureaucratic paperwork is a nightmare. So to have an office staffed by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians—to give a face and eliminate that need for self-directed paperwork—to me represented an opportunity. Not necessarily for us, but an opportunity for those who were displaced.”
“And just six weeks later, we have a plane—just a Newfoundland and Labrador plane, not a plane that is touching down here and going on to Toronto or anywhere else—that will land here, and only here, with 170 refugees. This is a made in Newfoundland and Labrador solution to a global problem.”
Capitalizing on a Time of Disruption
The province finds itself in an envious position in the post-pandemic world, Furey said.
“In the past, the largest barrier to anyone developing a new business here would be the fact that we’re an island,” the Premier explained. “But in this time and place, that may be attractive, coming out of Covid, [with] reverse urbanization. If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that you can make anything, anywhere, at any time—as long as you are connected to the internet—and sell it anywhere around the world.”
“Technology has really advanced because of the pandemic, and it has challenged us to see how we can capitalize on that time of disruption.”
Successfully resolving the province’s demographic and labour issues—whether through immigration or upstream changes to the education system—would allow Newfoundland and Labrador to capitalize on its promising new industries: technology, film, and the green economy.
“We have an incredibly booming tech sector right now,” Furey said. “If you look around the world at the places that have been tech ecosystems, there’s nothing particularly fancy about them. They’re unique, they’re a bit quirky, they’re a bit hip—they’re places where people want to be. And I think Newfoundland and Labrador has that. We have to advertise that. There is a significant space, especially emerging from the pandemic, where people want that.”
This doesn’t just apply to the technology sector either, the Premier argued. It also includes the film industry.
“We recognize that we have a special package of creative talent, a creative workforce, beautiful scenery, and that can all be done here,” he said. “The post-production stuff can be done anywhere. [We] have the critical mass [needed] to support the film and TV industry. [Disney told us:] don’t build a soundstage. Build the human capital. Build the human resources.”
The Premier also acknowledged last month’s federal approval of the Bay du Nord project as “good news that will inject incredible capital and incredible enthusiasm into a mature industry.” But most of his enthusiasm was reserved for the province’s prospective ‘green’ resource economy: wind energy, hydrogen, and low-carbon mining.
“Wind is an incredible opportunity for the people of this province,” Furey said. “We have an abundance of it—too much, in some places. We have a workforce that’s used to transitioning in a marine climate. So wind, not to the grid, but to hydrogen export is an incredible opportunity for the people of this province.”
“Europe is betting big time on hydrogen,” he continued. “As we know because of the geopolitical forces at play, there’s been a displaced volume of petrochemicals in Europe. They’re not going back. They will go back in the short term, and will look for countries like Canada to supply the backstop in the interim, but they are not going back fully to petro. So we are betting on hydrogen. Here we have an abundance of wind, an abundance of fresh water—which you need for the [hydrogen] electrolysis process—and deepsea ports. You can produce hydrogen right here in the province and then ship it directly to Europe.”
“We also see that in the commodities space,” the Premier concluded. “Because [our iron and nickel ore is so pure], it doesn’t require a high amount of heat to refine it, which means if you can use hydro electricity or wind electricity. You can decrease the environmental footprint per tonne of iron ore, for example. That’s what’s driving the capital investment in mining and other things, to ensure that they are decreasing their environmental footprint overall.”
But Furey was most optimistic in assessing his own record as Premier—and the province’s prognosis after nearly two years in his care.
“When I put my hand up [for leadership], that was the day former Premier Ball said we were struggling to borrow money,” Furey said. “The patient was on the table bleeding profusely with no line of sight to hemorrhage control. But we have stabilized the patient, saved the patient, and we’re into the recovery phase.”
“We’ve come through the ICU and the patient is almost ready to be discharged out of the hospital,” the Premier concluded. “And while the hard work of rehabilitation continues, there’s still a lot to do.”
New Industry Success Stories
Shortly after the Premier finished his coffee, Board of Trade CEO AnnMarie Boudreau convened representatives from four of the province’s major industries—Kieran Hanley (CEO of Econext), Mike McCann (CEO of Rio Tinto-IOC), Mark Sexton (Chair of the Newfoundland & Labrador Film Development Corporation), and Michelle Simms (President and CEO of the Genesis Centre)—to outline the opportunities they saw for their respective sectors. They were also joined by Dr. Patrick Parfrey, co-chair of Health Accord NL, whose frank discussion of the challenges facing the province’s health care system—and how the private sector could drive reform—dominated most of the morning’s session.
Technology and film represent relatively young industries in Newfoundland and Labrador that have lately become major success stories. Both Simms and Sexton stressed that besides favourable local conditions, this was because of each sector’s ability—and need—to build close connections with a variety of clients and service providers locally and internationally.
“We have seen the growth of the tech sector over 25 years from really early startups to attracting the attention of NASDAQ,” Simms said. “One of the keys to success [in tech] is understanding their customers extremely well—understanding what the market wants before they build it, and working with customers along the way.”
Tech companies tend to take between two and four years to develop products before they hit the market and generate profit, she told the room—so collaboration with clients is crucial.
“What we’ve found is that the companies who have been super successful in Newfoundland and Labrador have started here with their first customers, and have been able to iterate on their product from that first customer and build something that the world wants.”
Similarly, Sexton stressed that the film and TV industry has succeeded through casting a wide net and building partnerships both inside the industry and out.
“Take Hudson and Rex,” Sexton said. “Hudson and Rex is a locally-owned film company partnered with an Ontario production company. We call that a co-production. That’s a very typical model we’ve used here since 1997 to grow the industry. It’s a business where 150 people go every day and produce a TV show, [using] everything from renting warehouse space right down to cleaning supplies and janitorial services.”
“Disney is an example of what we call a service production,” he continued. “That’s a non-Newfoundland-owned company that would come here predominantly for the location. They were up in Spillars Cove [near Bonavista] for 3 weeks, they spent nine million dollars. It’s very service-oriented: equipment rentals, accomodations.”
“They hired a St. John’s company for a caterer—that business was on the ropes, but they got such a lucrative contract that they were able to grow and expand instead of shutting down.”
Code Blue for Health Care
Dr. Parfrey, meanwhile, also discussed the need for the public health system to build connections with other local private sector actors—particularly in technology. His assessment was less overtly rosy than others on the panel, but he still foresaw a lot of opportunity.
“[Health care is] the biggest industry,” Dr. Parfrey said. “$3 billion budget, the most employees, and the least efficient performance. We are the worst in the country, and Canada is one of the worst among the OECD. There’s going to have to be change in the public health system across Canada, but particularly here because our performance is so bad.”
“The health care system is fossilized from the perspective of innovation,” he continued. “It resists innovation. But because there is a crisis in this province, there will have to be more movement. And you guys can pressurize that change.”
Dr. Parfrey told the room that the demography and geography of the province represent both the health system’s greatest challenge—but also its greatest opportunity.
“The demography of our province is at the pointy end of what is going to happen in Canada,” he explained. “We’re the oldest population—23.6 percent of our population are seniors, 42 percent in rural communities. When you hear them demand hospitals and doctors for communities that are getting smaller and smaller, it’s just not feasible.”
“But virtual care is feasible—virtual care done properly, using a good health information system,” he continued. The province’s isolation and relatively small population means “it’s feasible for us to do things that’s not possible in Ontario [or] British Columbia. We can be at the pointy end of that solution because we have to be.”
“We [don’t have] the human resources within the health system to do innovative care using technology and virtual care. There is a very large opportunity for the private sector to engage in those solutions.”
But Dr. Parfrey was careful to underscore the value of a public healthcare system—more fully integrated with wellness and prevention—as well as stronger social services.
“I’m a strong supporter of public healthcare,” he said. “The public health system is there to allow everybody access to what they need in a hospital. [But] the public health system just reacts.”
“The wellness industry is primarily private and siloed from the public health system,” he added. “There needs to be more relationships between the private deliverers of care—physiotherapists, chiropractors, dental hygienists, you name it—[who are] involved in wellness and prevention. So our interest is in decreasing the silo and better integrating what we’ve got.”
“We’ve got this cultural belief that a hospital and a doctor are the key elements for our health,” Dr. Parfrey concluded. “They’re not. 60 percent of what makes us sick is directly related to the social determinants of health. As a province we have increased spending on health in the last 40 years by 230 percent. In the social sector, we’ve increased spending by 6 percent. That’s flat. We’ve got it wrong.”
Turning the Tide on Climate Change
Notably, there was no representative on the industry panel from EnergyNL (formerly the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industry Association), and very little discussion about offshore oil and gas. Instead, McCann and Hanley focused on the opportunities—and urgency—in harmonizing the province’s industrial development with consumer (and government) demands to address the climate crisis.
“The global economy is changing rapidly in front of us,” McCann told the room. “So if the demand for a product is more green, you’re going to see that shifting very quickly.”
“When we’re talking about greenhouse gas emissions specifically, society is moving faster than government, and demanding more from industry than governments are at this point in time,” Hanley said. “The speed and intensity at which these things are accelerating have blown away anything that anyone would have predicted over the past two or three years. Three years ago it was hard to sell an electric car. Now the biggest problem is you can’t get one.”
“This loops back to the story of IOC,” McCann added. “We have 50 to 100 years of ore resources that we can mine effectively, which is high purity [and] sought around the world in low carbon green steel-making. Our products fit into the low carbon society, but we are also looking internally at [ways] to decarbonize. So the future is really, really bright.”
In the end, both Hanley and McCann stressed that Newfoundland and Labrador needs to take climate change seriously—not only to mitigate its impacts locally, but also capitalize on global efforts to decarbonize.
“Labrador is going to experience some of the most volatile temperature changes in the years ahead,” Hanley said. “Being on an island, sea level rise is problematic for sure. We are certainly going to feel the impacts of climate change.”
“We contribute to the problem but we are impacted by what everyone else does,” he continued. “We have exactly what the world needs. It’s just a matter of how we get it to the world. Getting electricity to other parts of the world can be really challenging. There are a lot of logistical challenges involved in getting [hydrogen] on a ship and sending it to Europe. All of these things can absolutely be overcome. The technology is out there. It’s just a matter of economics.”
“It’s important to understand that this province has already been contributing to renewable energy projects for a long time,” Hanley added. “Pennecon just built a wind farm in Ontario. There’s a lot of experience and insight we can already draw upon here. So I foresee absolutely excellent things coming from this province to help the world help us turn the tide on climate change.”
“It comes down to every single one of us and the choices that we make,” McCann concluded. “That drives governments and businesses and capitalism faster.”
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