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Talent retention and entrepreneurship

Report from the Association of Atlantic Universities' 2016 Atlantic Leaders' Summit

Campus and Community

Atlantic Canada could become a field of dreams for entrepreneurs, immigrants and international students. And, if talented newcomers are given an incentive to move to the region and stay there, they will help build its economy.

These were the themes heard loud and clear at the Atlantic Leaders’ Summit on Talent Retention and Entrepreneurism, in Halifax, N.S., on June 24, an event sponsored by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) that attracted 75 business, community, government, student and academic leaders from across the region.

“For many years now, Memorial University has been increasing its investment in internationalization, attracting, retaining and supporting students and faculty from all over the world,” said Dr. Noreen Golfman, provost and vice-president (academic), Memorial University. “Memorial knows that the future of Newfoundland and Labrador, and, in turn, the Atlantic region, lies in creating the right conditions for newcomers to come here and thrive, creating new knowledge, new ideas and new technologies along the way. I commend the Association of Atlantic Universities for creating an opportunity to focus on the subject, one that is of paramount importance to the future of Atlantic Canada.”

Immigration and innovation

Scott Brison, member of Parliament and federal Treasury Board president, set the tone in a keynote address that opened the Summit. Minister Brison says entrepreneurial immigrants boost the economy and help address the region’s “terrifying” demographic challenge: too few workers supporting too many retired people.

“Starting over (as immigrants do) is inherently an entrepreneurial experience,” he said. “Immigrants see opportunities that others don’t.”

Mr. Brison says the growth of the wine industry in Nova Scotia underscores this point. The leading pioneers in Nova Scotia’s wine industry—Hans Jost, founder of Jost Vineyards, and Hanspeter Stutz, founder of Domaine de Grand Pré—both migrated to Nova Scotia from Europe. Pete Luckett, an immigrant from the United Kingdom and founder of Luckett Vineyards, is also a leader in the sector.

“Immigrants see opportunities that others don’t.” –Scott Brison

Due in part to the leadership of this trio, the wine business has grown from a fledgling industry into a major success story over the past two decades. Today, Nova Scotia boasts 22 wineries, 70 grape growers who cultivate more than 800 acres of vineyards, seven distinct grape growing districts and its own white wine appellation, Tidal Bay.

Acadia University’s Wine Institute has also played a key role in the growth of the vineyard and winery industry. In partnership with wine producers, other universities, and community colleges, the Institute provides advice and guidance to the industry—from identifying suitable micro-climates and soils for grape growers, to helping vineyards penetrate new markets.

Despite the benefits that immigrants like Messrs. Luckett, Jost and Stutz have brought to the region, Mr. Brison says there is “little upside” to supporting immigration as a politician. Too often, voters see immigration as a “zero sum game,” one in which newcomers take jobs from long-time residents. He says universities have an important role to play as thought leaders in leading a culture shift towards accepting and welcoming new Canadians.

“Can we take a Team Atlantic Canada approach to attracting foreign students?” –Scott Brison

Not that Mr. Brison is a pessimist. He says the region’s positive response to the recent influx of Syrian refugees may be a “game-changer.” He also says Atlantic universities are leveraging federal research grants to boost immigration to the region and build a more innovative Canada. For instance, the Tesla lithium battery lab project led by Dr. Jeff Dahn at Dalhousie University has assembled a team of 22 researchers, 12 of whom came from other nations.

“These investments in…research are incredibly important to bringing immigrants to Canada,” he said. “They are part of an overall integrated strategy in which universities play a key role. Creating a world-class research environment…is critically important to our region.”

The Trudeau government would like to attract more global talent to universities in Atlantic Canada, and keep them here once they graduate, Mr. Brison says.

“Can we take a Team Atlantic Canada approach to attracting foreign students?” he said.

One suggestion he made is a pan-university mission to China. The current contingent of more than 10,000 international students at AAU universities already represents a significant export industry, he says.

Less than two weeks after the summit, Mr. Brison was part of the team of federal cabinet ministers and Atlantic premiers who announced a three-year pilot project under which immigration to the region should increase significantly.

Talent retention

Margaret Brigley, president and COO of Corporate Research Associates (CRA), said most university graduates, including international students, would prefer to stay in Atlantic Canada after graduation. The AAU’s 2016 Graduate Retention Study showed 75 per cent of international graduates would remain in their province (of study) after graduation if given a choice.

Other highlights from the AAU study of 4,643 university and college graduates from 21 institutions across the region include the following:

  • 87 per cent of graduates are satisfied with the quality of their education;
  • 70 per cent of graduates “would recommend their province of study as a place to live and work”;
  • 82 per cent of graduates would stay in their province of study after graduation “if an attractive job offer was available;
  • 66 per cent of graduates participated in work-integrated learning programs such as co-op placements and internship. Participants were more likely to be satisfied with their educational experience; and,
  • Two per cent of graduates want to start their own business while 58 per cent plan to enter the workforce.

The data looks mostly positive until we consider whether graduates think they can thrive and prosper by staying in their own region.

A full 90 per cent of graduates say they would consider an Atlantic province as a place to work after graduation. But when they were asked to rate the region on a series of attributes, Atlantic Canada earned a thumbs-up for quality of life and affordability, but a thumbs-down for job opportunities and level of compensation.

Nice place to live, in short, if you can find good work.

Julie Cafley, vice-president of the Public Policy Forum, has some advice for employers who want to retain millennial graduates on the job.

Her organization’s research (The Road to Retention) shows millennials want to be consulted on the job: “Stop talking about us and have us at the table.”

Ms. Cafley also says hierarchical approaches “squelch innovation” among millennials, who want to be mentored, want to shift an organization’s focus away from the bottom line to people and want opportunities to volunteer.

Millennials also say work-life balance ranks ahead of opportunities to advance. And they also appear to be footloose in the work world: two out of three expect to leave their current job by 2020.

How do employers retain this generation of workers? According to Ms. Cafley, a good start could be made by nurturing creative ideas, providing employee benefits that millennials want and eliminating gender and culture-related issues in the workplace.


Peter Moreira, founder of Entrevestor.com, knows quite a bit about success stories—IT startups—that’s led to a large degree by the millennial generation.

The veteran journalist’s optimism about IT startups is based on the numbers. Mr. Moreira tracked 368 companies in the region in 2015, an increase of 24 per cent over 2014. More than 100 new startups were created in 2015, compared to around 60 the previous year. Employment overall is growing at a rate of about 30 per cent per year.

In short, the IT sector is small but mighty, a bright spot in the region but not a panacea, he says.

Mr. Moreira also says the sector has succeeded with the help of strong business leadership and effective public policy to create growth. Universities have also played a key role by putting in place key IT programs. In particular, Mr. Moreira cites the curricula offered by Genesis Centre at Memorial University; the Starting Lean program at Dalhousie University; Technology Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick; UIT Startup Immersion at Cape Breton University; and Enactus (Entrepreneurial Action Us) at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Given the severe shortage of programmers that is currently challenging the startup community, post-secondary institutions could do more to educate IT workers, Mr. Moreira says. A good start would be training a new generation of code writers. Mr. Moreira suggests that universities create curricula for “non-geeks”—people who want to get into the IT sector but aren’t already immersed in the culture. Those workers could help fill the labour shortage for the new generation of IT startup entrepreneurs that is starting to make its mark, he says.

Don Mills, the chairman and CEO of CRA, says any successful workplace culture—in the IT world or more traditional sectors—has to be driven by the traditional bottom line: profit. Without black ink at the bottom of the balance sheet, he says “we cannot reinvest, cannot hire more people, and cannot keep the business going.”

With Atlantic Canada “getting older and deeper in debt every day,” Mr. Mills says students should be introduced to business ideas and entrepreneurial thinking well before they get to university. He calls for reformed curricula from grade school onwards to introduce students to “business culture.” As head of a research company, Mr. Mills knows anti-corporate attitudes are ingrained in Atlantic Canada, and changing that has to start with early education.

“There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Atlantic Canada.” –Doug Robertson

Doug Robertson, president and CEO of Venn Innovation Inc., is also a supporter of early business education. He believes the timing is right for a great leap forward in entrepreneurial effort and success.

“There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Atlantic Canada,” said Mr. Robertson, whose Moncton-based company supports the growth of IT companies. “We have a dynamic regional innovative ecosystem.”

That ecosystem should continue to thrive even if, as the CRA survey reveals, only 2 per cent of graduates want to start their own businesses.

“Most of the entrepreneurially minded students were probably too busy getting things done to take the survey,” Mr. Robertson said.

In addition, that 2 per cent would represent 100 startups in Atlantic Canada per year, which represents a significant economic contribution to the region. Finn Poschmann, the CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, also put the 2 per cent figure in perspective.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said, adding many graduates have a lot of debt to pay off. “Starting a business was the farthest thing from my mind when I graduated.”

Angelo Casanas, manager of startups and partnerships at Memorial University’s Genesis Centre, agrees with Mr. Robertson that there is a “vibrant ecosystem” for entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada. But Mr. Casanas, who moved to St. John’s from Ontario two years ago, also says Atlantic Canada is competing for talent and capital in a tough competitive market. The Government of Ontario, for instance, is investing $27 million in youth entrepreneurship over the next two years. (No comparably funded programs exist in Atlantic Canada.)

“If we stay open to the opportunities…I think we have what it takes for the future of our province and our region.” –Dr. Ramona Lumpkin

Heather Howatt, the managing partner of Charlottetown-based Results Marketing & Advertising, brought a unique perspective to the summit. Ms. Howatt says she grew up on a struggling family farm. Given her background, she can’t explain why she wanted to become an entrepreneur. She argues that business builders are to “an extent born and not made. Let’s identify the sparks, the right people (and) not try to create entrepreneurs where they don’t exist.”

Ms. Howatt also says the focus on tech startups, financing and 20 per cent annual growth rate could be intimidating to someone starting a business in a more traditional industry.

“It would behoove all of us not to forget the welder who comes out of a college program and employs 10 others while staying in Mahone Bay or wherever. . . Not everyone has to be a $1-million company,” she said.

In her closing remarks at the summit, Dr. Ramona Lumpkin, president of Mount Saint Vincent University and past chair of the AAU, praised speakers for seeing “past the obstacles to the opportunities” the region has before it.

“We had wonderful examples of those opportunities,” Dr. Lumpkin said. “We have talented graduates that want to stay. We have a rich research environment. We have vital institutions like universities….If we stay open to the opportunities…I think we have what it takes for the future of our province and our region.”

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