Job seekers swarming to Atlantic provinces Unemployed drawn to opportunities, quality of life in region hit less hard by slumping economy

George Halliwell has been a headhunter in Charlottetown for the past seven years and has never seen such a wave of Canadians clamouring to move east. "I'm searching for an engineer in Halifax right now - and everyone from the automotive industry in Ontario is applying for the job. They might make $60,000 in Toronto or Guelph, but they're willing to take $50,000 here because of the housing costs, the way of life is a lot simpler, there are no traffic jams and it's more family oriented." Businesses are benefiting because they can choose from a wider pool of skilled talent, says Mr. Halliwell, who does recruiting across Canada. "We're able to relocate people now who otherwise wouldn't think of coming to the Maritimes."

His observations come as a Manpower Canada survey this month showed employers in Charlottetown are the most optimistic in the country about future hiring plans. "Confidence is rampant," says Douglas Coles, vice-president of Coles Associates, who has hired two engineers recently and plans to hire more to help design new hotels, schools and hospitals in the province. The upbeat mood isn't confined to Charlottetown.

Atlantic Canada - much of which never fully boomed in the good times - has so far been insulated from the worst of the bust. Job losses have been more muted. Retail spending is outpacing the rest of the country. And the expected decline in house prices in other parts of Canada this year isn't forecast to occur in the East.

"We don't make cars. And we don't have the same exposure to commodities," says Charles Cirtwill, Halifax-based executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. "We have a much more diversified economy, and a few areas [such as financial services] are even growing."

The region isn't immune to a recession that's touched every corner of the globe. But employment numbers suggest it has so far been more cushioned in this downturn. Job losses have snowballed through Central Canada, Alberta and B.C., while employment levels in PEI and Nova Scotia have been flat since October. New Brunswick and Newfoundland have shed roughly 3,000 jobs apiece in that time, Statistics Canada calculates. Some of the effect may be seasonal as employers ramp up in the tourism, agricultural and fisheries sectors. But job growth isn't confined to those industries.

Lockheed Martin Canada said Wednesday it plans to create up to 100 new jobs within the next five years in Halifax for positions ranging from software engineers to computer systems analysts. The move will more than double its workforce in the city. The city's financial district also continues to expand.

Bermuda-based Flagstone Reinsurance Holdings Ltd. said this month it's hiring up to 80 more people - positions with average salaries of about $100,000.

Research In Motion Ltd., meantime, is halfway through hiring 1,200 over the next five years for a technical support operations centre. Halifax boasts a skilled work force with a strong educational presence and much-lauded quality of life.

But those aren't the only reasons for the job growth. The province is rewarding companies with "payroll rebates," or money for each person hired. In Flagstone's case, for example, the rebate amounts to $1.3-million, or $16,380 per job. But the job creation isn't just a one-month blip.

Nova Scotia leads the country in full-time job growth over the past year, according to Statscan. Signs of relative health in the region aren't confined to the labour market. Retail spending rose in all four Atlantic provinces in January, and the growth over the past year outstrips all other provinces except Saskatchewan, according to Statscan. Consumer confidence is climbing. And the most optimistic businesses in the country these days reside in Newfoundland and Labrador, a Canadian Federation of Independent Business poll showed this month.

The housing market, too, fares better by comparison. House prices in the Atlantic region are expected to rise or hold steady this year, compared to declines in the rest of the country, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. predicts. "Elsewhere, it was looking like a bubble, but we didn't have that kind of thing here," says Patrick Brannon, research analyst at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Migration flows reflect the changing tide. The region posted the smallest net outflow last year since 1984, according to the council. (In 2008, a net 500 people left Atlantic Canada to go to other provinces - a far cry from 2006, when a net 13,000 people left the region).

Back in Charlottetown, other recruiters are also noticing the shift. Blake Doyle, president of Island Recruiting, is seeing job applications flooding his office from as far away as Alberta and British Columbia. They aren't just Islanders who want to return home. They're also laid-off, highly qualified professionals willing to migrate East for good jobs. "It's a really funny anomaly what you see here," he says. "It's the opposite of traditional trends." Fellow recruiter Mr. Halliwell is pleased about the new status of his hometown. "I'm from Charlottetown, and we've always been known as one of the have-nots. But we haven't had as much to lose as the haves."

Source: Globe and Mail April 2, 2009