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OPINION: Nova Scotia stems youth out-migration

Economic development is the only long-term answer to out-migration. 
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University / director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Younger people are leaving the North in droves to find work and better education, according to well, just about everyone. Youth out-migration and the brain drain has been a concern since the 1980s. No one has really tried to do anything about it. Now the aging population and a growing labour shortage have added to the problem.

Most are putting their money into attracting international immigrants. You know, people who will travel tens of thousands of miles to an area where locals don’t see great opportunities. It might work. Or it may be time to think more seriously about Northern youth. Retaining their slightly used brains may be more efficient than importing new ones. 

The main causes for youth out-migration are a lack of employment, education opportunities and fun. In fact, far more leave for jobs than for education and fun, together, according to a report by Stats Can. 

Economic development is the only long-term answer to out-migration. 

And, obviously, many kids should leave the North. It is a bit of a problem for us in the North that the most academically able, creative, innovative and entrepreneurial are most likely to leave and least likely to come back.

Young people with post-secondary education are 23 per cent more likely to leave than stay. High school graduates were 25 per cent more likely to stay than leave. It is not really a problem for the economy, as a whole, that talent moves to where it is needed. It is a problem for the long-term sustainability of Northern communities.

So what does the research tell us about keeping young people in rural areas? First, that everyone is having the same problem. Rural Quebec and Nova Scotia, Mongolia and parts of Nigeria all suffer from declining and aging populations. They all wonder whether they can make themselves attractive to young people. 

Second, once young people with post-secondary education get into their 30s, the chance they will leave drops dramatically. Get them back for their 20s and they are likely to stay.

The third message from the research is that there are strategies that can increase youth retention and return. They take a community-wide effort. Nova Scotia, for example, with a population just 25 per cent larger than ours, was losing 1,300 young people a year. Population was aging, businesses reported labour shortages, government revenues were in decline. The province came up with the Game Changers Youth Retention Action Plan, a three-year strategic initiative to engage the local business community in youth retention. 

Nova Scotia asked businesses to do three things: hire youth, provide experiential learning opportunities, and become “connectors.”  In just the second year of the program they gained 252 youth.  In the third year, the youth population grew again by 153. That is an average impact of about 1,500 a year. The Nova Scotia model may eventually saturate the market, but the key lesson is that mobilizing even part of the community can work well. 

A nine-year study of youth in communities from Timmins and Matheson to Hearst, Chapleau, Gogama, Elk Lake, Hornepayne, and the communities in the James Bay Area suggests that decision-makers should also seek to involve young people in the management of public affairs to get them more engaged in the community. Youth have to feel accepted by their community in order for them to want to live in it.

Finally, we find that young people’s view of their communities and their own futures are solidly entrenched before the end of high school. 

Young people leave and return when they are between 17 and 30, but their decision is shaped between 10 and 17.  A community that wants to convince kids to stay or return will have to begin well before high school. 

Most communities have little control over the level of migration, since natural amenities and colleges are largely fixed, and even job growth is difficult for communities to “engineer.” What can be controlled is the way the community treats young people. 

Do communities work to provide cultural opportunities, sports, and arts activities? Do they create opportunities for kids to work and learn? Does the whole community show how much it loves its kids?