GREENWICH, N.S. Nova Scotia is racing toward a severe labour shortage that will affect everything from tax revenues to health care, a forum on population was told Tuesday.
"We will run out of an available labour force in less than seven years," Jim McNiven, a senior policy research adviser and professor emeritus at Dalhousie University, told about 100 delegates.
"It's not a heart attack, it's diabetes. ... It's a long, slow slide that you can do something about."
The forum, which attracted business people, economic advisers and politicians attending the forum, was organized by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce and the Nova Scotia Association of Regional Development Authorities.
"Basically, if we run out of labour, it will stop economic activity in the province," said McNiven, co-author of three books on economic development and public policy issues.
The problem is caused by a combination of factors, from a declining birth rate to an older population on the cusp of retirement.
"The paradigm of growth and jobs is shifting," said McNiven. "Before there were too many people for too few jobs. Now it's becoming too many jobs for too few people.
He called a rare situation historically, except in wartime.
McNiven said if Nova Scotia wants to continue a moderate economic growth of one or two per cent a year, more labour will be needed.
"The persistent labour shortage is the No. 1 economic problem in Nova Scotia," he said, especially in rural Nova Scotia.
He said there are three ways to address the problem: increased immigration, greater productivity by the people who are still working, and having employees retire later, like at 75 instead of 65.
"All of those will likely have to be done at the same time if we're going to push the problem off for awhile."
Brian Rose, vice-president of membership and marketing for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, said the labour shortage is already impacting some businesses.
"We are feeling it in pockets that are growing every day. Not just a labour shortage, but a mismatch of skills and opportunity."
Rose said two main issues will affect Nova Scotia's future prosperity: energy security and a shrinking labour market.
"It's vitally important that small business people understand what they will have to deal with," he said. "We're not going to make the population increase, so how are we going to solve this problem over the next five, 10, 15 years?"