It is possible that the recent populist proposition by the New Brunswick provincial government to provide ‘free tuition’ to students in need will gain traction across the country. But as a resident of, and employer in, New Brunswick I must sound a warning to Canadians before they get too excited by the idea. The proposed legislation will do little to tackle the biggest problem in my province: a lack of good jobs. Unfortunately this is a problem across the entire country, not just in New Brunswick, where, according to Statistics Canada, unemployment and youth unemployment rates are at 10.2 per cent and 17.1 per cent respectively. Statistics Canada pegs national unemployment rate at the lower, but still unacceptable, rate of 7.1 per cent, while the national youth unemployment rate is almost double, at 13.4 per cent.
While making higher education more accessible is a laudable goal, it has little value if students aren’t able to make use of their education after graduation. Accordingly, I feel a much more effective allocation of the funds earmarked for this program would be as grants and loans designed to encourage students to become entrepreneurs. Aside from making higher education more accessible, this would promote innovation, spur job creation, and at the very least, better prepare students to enter the workforce.
The job landscape was not all that different when I graduated from Crandall University in Moncton in 2001. At that time, again according to Statistics Canada, the national unemployment rate was almost identical to today’s, at 7.1 per cent. Young people were faring slightly better in 2001, with a youth unemployment rate of 12.8 per cent. Then, as now, the job market was even more challenging in New Brunswick. The overall unemployment rate was even higher at 11.1 per cent and the youth rate was practically unchanged from today at 17 per cent.
Realizing this, I was not counting on getting a job right out of school. Rather, I focused my energies on graduating without the burden of student loans, even though, like so many students today, it was a challenge I had to face largely on my own. That is why, after completing my first year of university, I started PropertyGuys.com in the summer of 1998, in partnership with my Crandall classmate, Jeremy Demont
It was a risky proposition to be sure, but one that paid off both in the short and long term. Even though we each earned less than $5000 per year from PropertyGuys.com while we were at university, it came pretty close to covering our annual tuition, which was approximately $6000. Combined with money in the bank saved from working part-time throughout high school, I was able to graduate free of student loans, while Jeremy was able to pay his loans off within 12 months.
More importantly, by the time we graduated, we had established a growing business. Thus it made sense for us to remain and work in New Brunswick, as opposed to looking for work outside the province. PropertyGuys.com, along with both Jeremy and I, remains headquartered in New Brunswick to this day. Over the past fifteen years we have employed a significant number of people locally, while paying both personal and corporate taxes exclusively in New Brunswick and we have helped more than one hundred franchisees across the country do the same. In fact, despite an economic slowdown nationwide, over the last 18 months we have added 156 team members to our organization across the country, including seven home office staff here in Moncton. We are proud to say that year after year we have grown our network without leaving our home town.
This is a goal every province should be working towards. Provincial legislation designed to make higher education more affordable, regardless of the province of origin, should be designed with the goal of making this outcome possible for an increased number of students. The strategy should be to improve the lives of individual students, and society as a whole, while taking into account, and leveraging, the future direction of the global economy.
Canada cannot be a world leader based on a resource economy alone. We need to innovate in order to thrive and even to survive. Start-ups and small businesses are leading the quest for innovation. With so many potential benefits to increasing entrepreneurship, it is essential that governments, both provincial and federal, do better at resourcing, funding, supporting, and encouraging young entrepreneurs.
This is not to say that entrepreneurship is a guaranteed path to success – far from it. The road to innovation is littered with the carcasses of failed start-ups and a large number of people who try their hands at new businesses and end up throwing in the towel within the first five years, often with debts larger than the average student loans. Other student entrepreneurs forgo self-employment in favour of more stable jobs as they start families. Even knowing that not everyone will succeed, it is a worthwhile goal, as we will have, at the very least, created a knowledgeable and empathetic generation of employees more prepared to tackle the challenges of today’s global economy.
By adding the increased support of all levels of government to the valued work already being done by organizations like Futurepreneur, we will not only make it easier for students to become entrepreneurs, but mitigate their risks in so doing. We will also make it easier for them to leave entrepreneurship behind if they so choose. But whatever the individual outcomes we, as a nation, will be closer to unleashing the full power of entrepreneurship to foster innovation, create jobs, increase tax revenues and equip university students and graduates with the ability to control their own destiny.
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Ken is the President and CEO of PropertyGuys.com.