Fill that Dempster fibre

Announcement of new line means a chance to lure more tech workers

Better late than never. After more than a decade of proposals, counter-proposals and deep policy analysis, June 22’s Yukon News finally reported that our backup fibre optic cable will go into operation by 2021.

Now the question is how to fill that fibre with bits and bytes streaming to and from high-paying tech jobs in the Yukon, now that companies don’t have to worry about getting cut off from their customers by the backhoe villains of Fort Nelson.

One example people talk about is New Brunswick’s “economic miracle” in the early 1990s. The province actively lured thousands of call centre jobs with a combination of a well-educated and bilingual labour force, robust telecommunications infrastructure and financial incentives.

ContactNB, an industry association, says that call centres contribute more than 18,000 jobs and a billion dollars to the New Brunswick economy. That’s not bad for a province with 750,000 people, even if the jobs number is down a few thousand from its peak a decade ago.

Economists continue to debate the effectiveness of such financial incentives. It’s often hard to tell whether a business investment would have happened even without a government cheque, or if the resulting tax revenue ever pays back the government’s investment. If not, the funding comes at the expense of other taxpayers or government programs eventually.

Nonetheless, New Brunswick’s call centre initiative is held up as one of the more successful programs among many less inspiring economic development schemes tried across Canada over the years.

So what lessons does it hold for Yukoners as we try to build a sustainable private-sector economy?

The good news is that the Yukon also has a well-educated workforce, with multilingual skills that would surprise a vice president of human resources from Toronto.

Strangely, our near total reliance on federal transfers is also a plus. New Brunswick gets only a third of its revenue from Ottawa, so the cost of providing financial incentives for the call centres of multinational companies falls more obviously on local taxpayers and companies.

The backup fibre will also reassure businesses that their Yukon operations won’t go dark for hours at a time. In the decade that we’ve been debating the backup fibre, however, industry standards have risen. Customers are looking for triple redundancy, higher protection for cables, and proximity to population centres. Even a few milliseconds matters to today’s spoiled internet users.

Furthermore, server farms and data storage is now relatively more important. We have cold temperatures which can help cool computers for free, but we also have very expensive electricity.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Yukon today and New Brunswick in 1987 is that we have extremely low unemployment. Public sector jobs continue to grow in number, now representing 45 percent of employment. In May, our unemployment rate was just 2.7 percent, less than half the national average.

Back in 1987 when the call-centre campaign kicked off, New Brunswick’s unemployment rate was a shocking 13.5 per cent.

The current labour shortage in the Yukon is good for workers. Average weekly earnings here are 12 per cent higher than the national average, and grew faster than inflation in 2017. Average weekly earnings in the Yukon’s public administration sector are more than 40 percent the figure for the average Canadian worker.

But this means companies thinking of taking advantage of our backup fibre face a labour shortage and competition from government for people.

Since the phone company will run the new backup fibre as well as the existing link, it’s unlikely internet prices will go down much.

Costly and scarce labour plus high energy and internet costs mean that the Yukon will seem relatively unattractive for larger, cost-sensitive businesses. I wouldn’t expect many server farms or customer-service operations unless the Yukon starts handing out some very generous corporate incentives.

So the focus should be on smaller, high-value kinds of jobs. The Yukon boasts low personal tax rates and no sales tax, which is good news for well-paid techies.

However, if our unemployment rate is low overall, you can bet that unemployment among Yukon techies is even lower. How will incoming companies find the talent they need to staff up in the Yukon?

A look at the degree offerings at UBC or the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s diplomas gives a hint of the kind of jobs we are talking about: programmers, web developers, cyber security specialists, network engineers, digital marketers, social media analysts, and so on.

The quest to fill our fibre capacity will be more difficult than New Brunswick’s call centre strategy. But there is one lesson from New Brunswick that definitely applies: the Yukon government needs to have a thoughtful, sustained and well-resourced campaign to lure telecommuters and small tech companies. It won’t happen overnight, but if we can attract a few hundred jobs a year from techies escaping the traffic and real estate prices of Vancouver, then over a decade that will add up to a sizeable Yukon tech sector.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read