St. John’s Board of Trade chairman, Pennecon HR advisor Alex Gibson answers 20 Questions

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The St. John’s metro area experienced an economic uptick generally in 2022. According to Statistics Canada data, the population increased by almost 5,000 over the previous year to 219,119, and employment totalled 115,000, surpassing the last pre-pandemic year of 2019 by 4,200 jobs.

The unemployment rate of 6.4 per cent for St. John’s metro in 2022 (versus a 10.8 per cent rate for Newfoundland and Labrador) was also an improvement over the eight per cent figure recorded for 2019.

Taking over this past Friday, Feb. 24, as chairman for the St. John’s Board of Trade, Alex Gibson looks to this sort of information as a reason to have cautious optimism about what lies ahead for the local business community in 2023.

“I think our province very much goes through waves,” said Gibson, a Memorial University business school graduate who works as a human resources advisor for Pennecon. “Sometimes we go through bad waves, and we’re just getting out of one, hopefully, and now we’re on the uprise, potentially again, with lots of projects on the horizon. An upswing in population, though it’s modest. It’s not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but it’s something.

“It’s a story to tell, I think, because from the business community especially, everyone’s looking for talent. Everyone’s looking for people that are skilled. I think Newfoundland and Labrador has actually done a really good job, and they’re getting better, at being much more open and being part of that global economy that we really need to be in, in order to keep and attract that talent that we need to build and foster the business community and our economy here.”

As a HR professional, Gibson very much has his ear to the ground when it comes to attracting talent and hiring. Specific to Pennecon, a major construction company in the province that also has offices in Nova Scotia and Alberta, Gibson finds things are generally going well when it comes to attracting the right job candidates, though he has noticed a skills gap when it comes to finding enough workers with a skilled trades background.

“But on the engineers, business professional, support roles, those are seemingly OK, and immigration certainly helped that,” said Gibson, who has served as a director and executive board member with the Board of Trade since 2018. “You see a wide array of new talent that’s coming in. New perspectives, which is great, because I’m very much a huge believer in that diversity framework. Diversity adds better problem solving, new ways of thinking about things. Just new ways of thinking about things sometimes can help you move forward and change, hopefully, for the better.”

20 Questions

1 . What is your full name?

John Alexander McKenna Gibson.

2 . Where were you born and where do you live today?

I’m actually born and raised in Truro, N.S. Came to school here in 2006 and went to Memorial, studying commerce, and then just stayed put ever since. I really liked St. John’s, the city, and Newfoundland and Labrador as a culture. It was a joke within the family that towards the end of my last year (at MUN), they knew that I was staying put. There was no place that I wanted to be but here.

3 . Who do you follow on social media?

I’m definitely very tapped into the political realms of things. All the politicians that are locally, provincially, federally, even internationally on some levels. Very much into the sports side — sports pundits and things like that. But also into the HR employment and labour law space there as well. It hits a lot of different points.

I’m probably weird in many regards on (sports) too. I’m a big football, or soccer, fan. I’m a big Liverpool diehard. I have a lot of friends in town that I meet up with for a lot of the games … My partner Sarah, she’s from Australia. She’s actually introduced me to Australian Football League, or Aussie rules football, as they would call it. That’s coming up in March … Crazy time difference, for sure. But on the weekends in the mornings, it’s something that we look forward to.

4 . What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I have my scuba diving licence. I will attest that I will never scuba dive in this province, unfortunately. Too cold, too dark, and for me specifically, I probably need to get a customized dry suit, which is way too expensive for just a recreational hobby. But I’ve scuba dove in the Bahamas, Indonesia, and Australia. If I go to warm spots, I’ll look out for it. Scuba dove with sharks, whale sharks, manta rays — it’s been pretty fun.

5 . What’s been your favourite year and why?

I wanted to actually say this year, to be frank … I know that’s future-thinking and future-focused, but 2023 is really setting up myself as a big year. One, I’m just graduating from my masters, which took two-and-a-half years and was a lot of time and effort, but an incredibly rewarding experience. With Queen’s (University), it’s the professional masters of industrial relations. It’s very HR, employment and labour relations-focused, all course-based. There’s 11 courses that I did over two-and-a-half years.

It was one of those COVID things. I remember applying in April 2020, just because I was sitting on my thumbs, wanted something to do. I always wanted to pursue my masters, and it just was the perfect time in some ways, as the world kind of stopped. Online education became much more of a thing. From a cost perspective, I didn’t need to fly to Kingston or Toronto nearly as much, saving me probably tens-of-thousands of dollars. I convocate in June of this year.

Two, I roll into this chair year within the St. John’s Board of Trade, which I’m quite excited about and quite passionate about.

Then three, my partner Sarah and I, we have some big travel plans coming up, maybe in the fall. We’re looking to go to central Asia, of all places. We’re big travellers, so the last couple of years has really been, obviously, very restrictive of big travel. But this is going to be a good tour — a couple of countries in central Asia. We’re very much of the type that we like to travel for culture and for those new experiences. I always provide the adage that it’s the road less travelled are the roads that I like to be on.

“… it’s the road less travelled are the roads that I like to be on.”

6 . What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

The hardest thing I’ve ever done is also probably travel-related. My last big trip before COVID in 2020 was actually in December 2019 … I went to Uganda in Africa … We hiked up the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (a national park) and it was about seven hours of hiking in a lush jungle, rainforest environment. Going up a crazy high mountain. When I say lush jungle, tropical forest, it’s literally guides with machetes clearing brush in front of you, and us with long sleeves, long pants, going through that brush with vines sticking on you, just fighting your way through it. That whole excursion was hard, but so worth it, because the point of it was to find a family of mountain gorillas, and we did that.

7 . Can you describe one experience that changed your life?

One of the most life-changing experiences was just seeing wildlife like that right up in front of me. Seeing a mother and her baby. Initially starting off from 15-plus feet away to (the mother) picking up her baby, coming directly me-to-you range and just sitting there, just observing us for 20 minutes. Looking in her eyes, and us back, it was very much a human connection. There was an understanding. That was a surreal moment for me.

8 . What is your greatest indulgence?

It’s probably two things. It’s probably travel … A good amount of splurging — thousands of dollars on travel. But I’ll say more locally, definitely a big foodie. Very much of the type that if there’s a new restaurant that’s opened up, a new menu event or pop-up that is happening, Sarah and I will be there that weekend checking it out, because that’s just a fun thing to do. Last big meal that I’d probably talk about well is at (downtown St, John’s restaurant) Portage. That was exceptional. It’s probably in my top rotation now. I can’t wait to go back.

9 . What is your favourite movie or book?

I have a couple of standouts that I feel resonate with me that I go back to, thinking that they were great reads. One of them was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, which is a book about an autistic individual solving the neighbourhood murder of a dog. It goes through the lens of an autistic person how they go about solving this case, which was really interesting. I believe Mark was a psychologist or social worker that works with autistic youth. There was a couple of pages I’ll always remember on why the main character liked the colour yellow, and he just went through the whole description of why, and that just made sense to him.

Another book I really like by George Orwell, one not heard of most often, is “Homage to Catalonia,” which is his own experience in the Spanish Civil War. Him going through the troops and seeing the political forces that be. That was pretty cool. I’ll throw the other one out there, just the biography of Barack Obama, “A Promised Land.” It was a good read, too.

10 . What do you like to listen to?

I’ll say podcasts. Where I find time is still in the morning … 4:30 until maybe 6, I’ll focus on my masters or whatever, and then from 6 to 7, I’ll either go for a morning walk … or go for a morning run. I love just putting on a podcast for an hour, whether it be politics, employment, human resources, sports … just zone out.

11 . How do you like to relax?

I very much appreciate my walks and my runs. Not relaxing for everyone, but for me, that’s an opportunity just to really turn off my mind and just let my mind go wherever it needs to. Weirdly enough, I find myself solving all my life’s problems, or all my life’s obstacles in front of me, whenever I truly go out on a walk that’s unfettered — when completely unconnected.

12 . What are you reading or watching right now?

Most of my leisurely reading has been all towards my masters over the last two-and-a-half years. The two classes that I’m really finishing up on here now is advancing equity, diversity, inclusion (EDI) in the workplace and industrial relations in the global economy. There’s been a lot of interesting reads on both fronts. Completely different unto each other.

On the EDI space, it’s talking about implementation, change, the statistics behind why it matters. On the global industrial relations side, it’s just looking at the world context and looking at employment and union labour relations and how different countries have done them. No right or wrong, but just how the world and workers and employees have advanced themselves in different parts of society.

13 . What is your greatest fear?

I think my greatest fear is actually standing still, to be frank. I feel I have one speed and that’s go … I like being active and involved. I feel, to me, that really helps balance myself, is when I am involved and I am active, because it helps me put my mind to something that I feel is worth it.

14 . How would you describe your personal fashion sense?

I don’t know if I have a true fashion sense … I’m very happy that I splurged on a suit at Benjamin’s for the upcoming year. I’ve never had a suit that’s properly tailored to me. To get a suit and hem it versus getting a suit that’s already (custom-made) to you, it’s actually cheaper for me to go to the second route, and I thought that was odd. But I’m happy with that choice and happy to wear it out. But whenever I indulge … I wear a shirt, maybe a blazer, depending on the mood or the day.

15 . If you had to perform karaoke, which song would you choose and why?

I am a terrible singer, outright … But I actually do have a go-to karaoke song that I sing whenever the situation arises with it, and that’s “Kryptonite” by Three Doors Down. I don’t know why, but I feel I can get that raunchiness (in the voice of) the lead singer there. It works.

16 . What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t have any kids or anything like that. But I do have … my three cats — Smokey, Franky and Pete. They are very much-loved pets through and through, and maybe even too loved at many points. But not possessions really, but family members that I very much cherish.

17 . Which physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?

It’s a joint trait between both my mother and my father, Joan and Alan Gibson … The older you get in life, you realize how fortunate your upbringing was, and I definitely had a fortunate upbringing. My parents gave me that drive and that personality trait of being active and involved, in being someone that chases things if they want it. I very much owe my upbringing for that.

18 . What would you say is your best quality, and what would you say is your worst quality?

I would say it’s a cheap cop-out answer, I’ll say, but maybe they’re one and the same. I like to be busy, and when I lead teams, I have hefty expectations of myself, but of others too. I say that within the sense that I want everyone to succeed together, and I want everyone to have an equal weight to what we’re driving for.

I’m very much a team person at heart. I hate even this conversation right now, I don’t feel is enough team-spirited to me. But that would be maybe my greatest weakness, is trying to build up my teams and having those high expectations. But high expectations in a very genuine, heartfelt sense. It’s not for any wrong causes. It’s just because I truly feel wherever we’re going as a team, I want us to go together.

19 . Where is your favourite place in the world?

Karijini National Park, which is in Western Australia. That is where my partner is from. She’s from Perth, and that’s a weird, funny story. We started dating in 2018, and she had this trip planned for the fall. Three-or-four months into dating, she said, “Well I’m going on this trip. You want to come with?” And I said, “All right, let’s go.” Let’s see what happens. Here we are, only a couple of months dating, and we embark on (a trip to) the other side of the world.

Karijini is in the northwest. It’s a national park that’s in the outback … What that trip eye opened me to is how different cultures do their Indigenous relations. Western Australia is very hands-on, very involved, and you can see the Indigenous influence on a lot of the parks, a lot of businesses and a lot of just the community partnerships that they have there. That was really again, an eye-opening experience for me. That is why it’s probably one of the spots in the world that I most cherish for having been too.

20 . Which three people would join you for your dream dinner party?

(Food writer, chef and TV host) Anthony Bourdain … person that really likes to go out to enjoy new restaurants, new food, new culture. I think Anthony Bourdain truly embraced that. It would be lovely to talk to him about his experiences of the world …

Jürgen Klopp is the manager of Liverpool right now, and he’s an incredibly charismatic German coach. Very much is one for the team, one for using his charisma to lead the team. You can see the strength of his relationships within the side, down from the junior academy player that’s just trying to make the team to the senior vet that might be retiring within the next couple of years. He’s very influential and impactful.

I really loved his quote that when he was introduced to the media for the first time … he said, “We need to change from doubters to believers” … Liverpool was very much down in the dumps for the last couple of years, and he needed that fan base and the whole team to believe in that team spirit again. You can see whatever he does is much for the community and trying to get Liverpool in the northwest of England to embrace a culture of teamwork and team spirit …

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister that just resigned … I would love to just to chat with her, because I do think that in the years to come, hopefully, she’s the type of leader that we’ll see more often in this world, because I think that is the type of leader that really resonates with … the generation that’s coming upwards. People that can embrace their human side. I think gone are the days of you seeing these leaders that are just robotic and just say the things that you need them to say, and you can tell it’s scripted through and through. To see more empathetic leaders that truly understand people and care — that’s the way forward.


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