FREDERICTON (CUP) — The shortage of skilled workers in Atlantic Canada will only get worse unless the region can attract immigrants who would normally go to big cities, according to a paper published last month by the Association of Atlantic Universities.

Atlantic Canada needs talented young people to re-populate its workforce to avoid long-term economic decline, according to the report. The key, the association says, is that these immigrants are already studying at the region’s universities.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s well known that Atlantic Canada suffers from a declining and dying population base, and we also have the lowest retention of immigrants in the country,” says Peter Halpin, executive director of the AAU.

He says that universities’ recruitment of international students is the first step to combat these challenges.

Getting a job once they’ve earned a degree, however, is the tough part.

“I’d say the overwhelming reason immigrants gravitate towards larger centres is the opportunity for employment. One of the biggest challenges we have here is having employment opportunities for the immigrants we do attract.

“Unless they can have a job in their area of interest or experience, it would be very difficult to retain them.”

Halpin says that this is where the government and private sector “really have to step up,” and provide jobs for not only immigrants, but the domestic population as well.

Phil Ouellette, the acting director of retention for New Brunswick’s department of post-secondary education, says the region does need to retain some international students to make a positive difference.

There are jobs for international students, he says — they just need to be informed on how to find those jobs.

As it stands in Atlantic Canada, the population is growing older, young people are leaving, and families are not as large as they once were.

“There are two ways to deal with this,” says Ouellette. “We could get people back who have left, or bring new people into the country.”

As long as international students are made to feel included and involved, he says at least some of them will have a tendency to return to the region.

“The key to retaining students here is that we provide them with a high-quality academic experience and a great student experience, and in the course of four or five years they become well-oriented in the community and in our culture,” Halpin says.

“They become comfortable and made to feel welcome. If an international student or an immigrant who’s not an international student isn’t made to feel welcome, being made to feel welcome includes (the opportunity for) employment.”