State of the province depends on state of its youth

Sean Thompson - The Political Animal (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Change, as the premier said time after time, is coming to the way the New Brunswick government does business.

It’s to come to the structure of government through blandly-named government renewal, an effort to refocus government on “core services, accountability, and continuous performance improvement,” to quote Alward’s address.

The provincial budget, due in March, is widely expected to focus on what, to paraphrase Finance Minister Blaine Higgs, the province feels it needs as opposed to what it wants.

Few people will disagree that government should be more efficient and should give priority to essential services. The devil, however, will be in the details.

For New Brunswick’s youth, post-secondary education, be it from a university or community college, is vitally needed to get any sort of job today.

The Alward government, however, has done precious little to reflect that reality during its sixteen months in charge. In fact, by re-instating the parental contribution to student loans, it could be easily argued the government has made getting a degree or diploma harder for many students unable to make up this new expense.

Martine Coloumbe, the minister for post-secondary education, training, and labour, has laughably little experience in either government or post-secondary education and, with the exception of defending last year’s minimum wage increase deferral, is one of cabinet’s least visible members.

The risk of not providing better access to post-secondary education, be it through lower tuition, more targeted grants, a reformed student loan system, or a combination of the three, is two-fold. If students can’t find affordable education in New Brunswick, they will seek it elsewhere and, once they’ve earned their degree, many will be inclined to stay elsewhere. The province cannot afford to lose many of a generation’s best and brightest on such grounds.

Additionally, less accessible post-secondary education, for those from poor and even middle-class backgrounds, means trouble finding good, well-paying jobs practically anywhere outside Alberta. It risks perpetuating for many a vicious cycle of poverty and a greater number of people relying on welfare – at additional costs to the cash-strapped provincial government.

If Alward was correct at pre-budget consultations last week in Woodstock in saying, “It takes 12 to 13 people who make $20,000 a year to pay the same amount of tax of somebody who makes $70,000 a year,” government, in the least, should not make it more difficult for our generation to gather the skills and credentials to get those higher-paying jobs.

Speaking of jobs, New Brunswick’s unemployment rate of 9.4 per cent in December 2011, while unchanged from December 2010, is still nearly two points above the national average. An 18.9 per cent unemployment rate among those aged 15-24 is 3.1 points higher than last year and nearly five points higher than the national rate of 14.1.

The government talks a good game about jobs. Alward, himself, even mentioned in the State of the Province that there are opportunities in six fields, including aerospace and defence, information and communications technology, and (stifles laugh) value-added food. He launched a new agency called Invest NB specifically to attract new businesses and their attendant jobs.

In its six month existence, however, Invest NB has made exactly one announcement, last week’s of an expansion of a pharmaceutical distribution centre in Moncton. The company only produced only 40 new jobs.

Our generation needs more than hopeful words if we’re going to do anything but visit our parents and grandparents here. The province must recognize that our generation’s needs are the province’s needs.

Otherwise, the state of the province will turn far more dire than the picture Alward painted last week.

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