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Roslyn KuninIn a free and open economy like Canada’s, the goods and services we enjoy are produced by entrepreneurs and business people. The biggest challenge they now face in providing this largesse is a lack of people willing and able to fill jobs – the talent.

Particularly in short supply are younger workers. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

We’re all aware that members of the big generation of baby boomers are retiring in droves. And the trend increased when many tasted freedom from nine-to-five work during the pandemic.

Demographers also point out that birth rates have declined and remained low since the mid-1960s, so fewer young people are entering the workforce.

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Young workers are needed to fill the gaps left by retirees. They also tend to have more education than older folks. Today’s youth are the first generation to grow up in an internet-enabled electronic world. Digital is their mother tongue, unlike their elders who had to learn it as a second language and struggle to speak it fluently, if at all.

Being native to the digital world isn’t the only factor differentiating younger people. They have values and expectations unlike those of their parents, who saw work as a source of income, perhaps with a chance of advancement.

Today’s youth still need the income that work provides, in part to pay for housing and student debt. But what they do and where they live are determined by factors other than income.

Alberta’s provincial government is acutely aware that financial factors alone are no longer sufficient to attract and retain young workers. Until 2016, high wages, low taxes and cheap housing (at least relative to Vancouver and Toronto) were sufficient to ensure a net inflow of talent into the province. This is no longer the case.

The Canada West Foundation recently studied the factors important to younger people when deciding where to live and work. It showed that the prospect of enjoying positive experiences plays a big role in determining where to settle.

Communities wishing to attract people must offer a wide variety of experiences. These are described in the accompanying chart.

Active experiences include outdoor and participatory recreation that’s appealing to younger people, health and wellness activities (which become more important as people age) and organized sport (which attracts a large spectrum of people).

Professional activities are usually more closely tied to employers, educational institutions and associations. Career success is no longer the be-all and end-all, but the lack of such activities can be a turnoff for young people.

Learning experiences are much more than classroom-based courses for young people. Although much formal and informal learning can be done on the internet and thus isn’t place-dependent, opportunities for face-to-face interactions are welcome. It’s a fact we all learned during the pandemic.

Opportunities for creative experiences are a major influence on people’s decisions to join or leave a community. In this area, communities can and do differentiate themselves. Are restaurants and entertainment available? Do institutions express a wide range of views on politics and the environment? Are my views included? Will I be welcomed and made to feel at home?

The Canada West Foundation has provided Alberta with a roadmap on how to generate a positive inflow of needed talent. The rest of Canada needs to pay attention. If we don’t, we won’t find the talent we need – and the talent Alberta attracts may come from our regions.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

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