Taking our economic bull by the horns

 

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It is a fitting chapter in a saga that is becoming as familiar to New Brunswickers as olympian economic woes are to Greeks.

Promising technology upstart makes headlines with its innovation and ingenuity; sells itself to an international company for a pretty penny; vows, nevertheless, to remain a vigorous, job-generating player on the provincial landscape; has the rug pulled out from under its head-office-manacled feet; lays off a hefty chunk of its workforce; waits for something else to happen.

It’s the waiting for something else that is the recurring theme in New Brunswick’s beleaguered commercial sector. And Radian6 of Fredericton is just the most recent, unhappy example.

Last week, the tech firm’s parent company, Salesforce.com of San Francisco, announced it was trimming about 200 jobs worldwide, roughly 67 of them in this province. The move came after the global social media monitoring operation purchased ExactTarget, an email marketing outfit, for $2.5 billion. The move, it said, was necessary, though it didn’t bother to explain why or how.

In a statement, Salesforce declared, “Combining ExactTarget with our existing Marketing Cloud provides synergy, and we will be reducing our total headcount . . .to reflect this opportunity. . .We care deeply about our employees and we’re providing resources to position them for success in the next step of their careers – whether that’s a new position within Salesforce.com or a new opportunity elsewhere.”

That’s mighty decent of them, only it’s not entirely clear where the surplus “headcount” will actually land in a province where the track record of job losses is now more entrenched than in any other part of Canada.

The many layers of poignancy in all of this are hard to miss.

Salesforce.com’s 2011 purchase of Radian6 – whose homegrown technology enhanced the American firm’s competitive position in the marketplace – for $326 million was heralded by all, but a few who wondered about the efficacy of offshore ownership, as a coup, positive proof that New Brunswick companies can succeed internationally.

Only last year, the provincial government offered Salesforce.com a payroll rebate totaling $3.8 million to help Radian6 create 300 jobs in Saint John and Fredericton by 2018. According to news reports, it has already dispensed about $500,000 of the fund, though Premier David Alward is at pains to explain why this is nothing to fret about.

Talking to reporters last week, he said, “There are significant accountability mechanisms or processes in place between the department and the company and I have full confidence that those will be followed and that the company will live up to their responsibilities under the agreement.”

Translation: Even though Salesforce is cutting its staff in New Brunswick today, it is still obliged to boost the total number of jobs by 300 over the next five years.

Still, that’s a remarkably optimistic posture for any government to assume regarding any foreign-owned entity operating within its backyard. Global economic trade  winds (or headwinds, as the case may be) routinely shred “agreements” to play nice with the locals. Ribbon cuttings, alas, are far less frequent than the cutting of losses.

In fact, none of this was even remotely preventable. We should expect such blips in jobs – up or down – as log as business flows more-or-less freely across national borders. Where New Brunswick’s private and public sectors must train their attention is on the urgent need to inject greater diversity, better capacity, more durable self-sufficiency, into the provincial economy.

We must start generating new opportunities that will load our cities and smaller communities with options. For every Radian6 that rises to prominence, there should be sixty others percolating with promise. Our provincial innovation agenda should have less to do with payroll support for existing (and exiting) enterprises and more to do with animating early-stage growth among commercially viable startups – export assistance, plant development, skills development, technology adoption.

For all the talk of pipelines and shale gas – opportunities (or challenges) over which we have little control – we must stop waiting for things to happen to us.

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