Rejuvenating Quebec’s Lower North Shore with jobs for youth

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s youth report: Growing the bio-economy: youth in focus

Of all the places Kristofer Fequet thought he might find a job after graduating from university, back home in Quebec’s remote Lower North Shore wasn’t one of them. But the push to build a local bio-economy combined with a Career Starter wage subsidy paved the way for him to put his degree to work right where he grew up — and to contribute to the revitalization of his home town.

“With my degree in chemical engineering and biochemistry, I figured I’d end up out in the Alberta oil sands. I never imagined there’d be something here at home,” Fequet says.

A phone call toward the end of his final semester at the University of Ottawa from Coasters Association Director of Operations and Innovation Kimberly Buffitt changed his outlook.

Buffitt offered Fequet a well-paying job as an engineering and R&D manager at the Lower North Shore’s new bioproducts processing plant along with additional financial support to pursue a master’s degree while he worked. He’d get to do what he loves most, designing chemical processes.

“It was literally an offer too good to refuse,” Fequet says.

Persistence pays off

The Coasters Association’s mandate is to strengthen the economic vitality of the Lower North Shore. Research more than a decade ago probed why the region’s economy wasn’t moving forward, especially after hundreds of industrial feasibility studies. A big part of the answer turned out to be a lack of people with graduate degrees. BioTalent Canada’s LMI research has shown that 70–92% of graduates stay in the region where they study — a challenge for remote communities with few post-secondary institutions of their own. That prompted the Coasters Association to prioritize creating opportunities for young people to come back, raise families and contribute to their communities.

Young people in Northern communities used to believe their only professional choices at home were to be a nurse or a teacher. The growth of a regional bio-economy is changing that, built around distinctive local natural resources such as cloudberries, lingonberries, sea cucumbers and algae.

Buffitt says she’s determined to draw young people back. “I phone them one-on-one. I’ll phone the families. I start when they’re midway through their programs, before they lose their attachment to the region.”

Since a plane ticket to the Lower North Shore from southern Canada averages about $3,000, Buffitt says it takes at least $15,000 to make the return home worthwhile. When she learned about BioTalent Canada’s youth wage subsidies for bio-economy jobs, she didn’t wait to apply, using them to staff a range of roles. In addition to Fequet. she hired a marketing communications intern, a bio-development business coordinator, a research support officer and more. All are now in permanent positions.

With the wage subsidy, Coasters was able to offer salaries that made it feasible for candidates to return to the Lower North Shore, where flights average about $3,000.

The gateway to global experience

The Lower North Shore’s special mix of bio-resources has attracted some very large nutraceutical and cosmetics companies to the region. Fequet recently found himself preparing the local plant for an audit by one of the world’s best-known cosmetics brands.

The research being done to develop the bio-economy has drawn attention from experts as far away as Finland and Russia.

“When people think about research in the North, they think about melting ice,” says Buffitt. “The reality is far more diverse, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what’s here and what we can do with it.”

Her ultimate hope is that building a successful bio-economy in the region will jumpstart a cycle in which commercial investors are attracted by the local talent, encouraging them to invest and create even more opportunities for young workers.

The impacts of youth on the Lower North Shore go beyond developing local industry. Buffitt says one community had three of its young people return: within a year, they’d gotten involved in local government and led a project to replace outdated wells with a modern water filtration system.

Buffitt and Fequet both agree that longer-term wage subsidies would do even more for northern communities in Canada.

“Up here, it can take a long time to get projects going, get supplies and equipment in place,” Fequet says. “The more time you have, the more you can accomplish.”

Funded in part by Government of Canada’s Youth Employment Skills Strategy Program