After working in construction all over Canada, I can see why P.E.I. is short of workers

Let’s talk about wages.

When I moved to P.E.I. I was struck immediately by the higher cost of groceries

The Construction Association of P.E.I. estimates the sector has about 1,000 job vacancies. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

This is a First Person column by construction worker David Searle. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There has been a lot of talk lately about labour shortages on P.E.I., particularly in construction.

Many reasons have been put forward for this. I'd like to talk about wages.

When the subject of wages comes up, there is a continuing narrative that claims any gains found outside of P.E.I. are lost with the associated increased cost of living. In my experience this isn't true, and I think it holds up an outdated idea that suppresses wages across the province in all industries.

I am speaking from experience of having worked in every mainland province in Canada, as well as the Northwest Territories. I'm a 40-year-old, self-employed carpenter. I've contracted, sub-contracted, employed and been employed, in many fields in the construction industry on both a residential and commercial level.

Skilled labour undervalued

This idea that low wages are justified because of cheap living seems to have a bit of a death grip here.

By cherry-picking data, the industry and media can project a simplified version that makes Islanders look relatively better off than they really are. This is a troubling trend during a housing crisis where property prices skyrocket and wages remain stagnant.

For example, a recent CBC article included this analysis: "The overall average hourly wage for the construction jobs investigated in Charlottetown was $21.73, 15 per cent below the average of $24.97 in the other seven cities."

While this is true, the choice of sample jobs doesn't reflect how large the disparity can be for skilled labourers.

Labourers and skilled labour are the lifeblood of the construction industry. You don't send in five seasoned carpenters to build a house; it's one or two carpenters and a team of labourers. The worker with Red Seal certification often acts as a manager and is responsible for all the work that is completed on site.

This means that the great majority of the construction workforce is composed of moderately-skilled labourers who earn between $15 and $20 per hour. That wage is similar across the country, but the wages for those Red Seal-qualified workers is considerably lower on P.E.I.

This difference is hidden if you look at wage averages across different experience levels.

Access and upward mobility

There are two issues that affect labour supply that come out of this situation.

First, there is the brain drain effect that has been happening for decades. Once workers establish themselves in the trade and get accredited, they leave for a market where the wages are better.

The second issue is access and upward mobility. The trades were always considered a place where an uneducated person could learn skills on the job and advance into a career that paid a living wage. Now, for most trades, you are looking at a year or two of college and a couple years of on-the-job experience at a labourer wage before you can move through your journeyman and complete the Red Seal.

Now you've entered the education-debt cycle that many turned to the construction industry to avoid in the first place.

David Searle has worked in construction all across Canada, most recently on P.E.I. (David Searle)

Many who are willing to make the sacrifice find limited opportunities. With the majority of businesses being small to medium size, there is often a low-wage ceiling. A skilled worker can do many of the things a Red Seal worker can, but at a much lower rate.

Apprenticeships can be hard to get, because once workers know too much, they become a liability. They expect higher wages, or they could go out on their own and become a competitor.

Unfair comparisons

There's also an apples-and-oranges problem when it comes to comparing the cost of living in Charlottetown with other parts of Canada.

Large cities are often used as a benchmark. But cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver are drastically different than Charlottetown, and it gives a false impression of how other Canadians are living.

So, instead of comparing Charlottetown and Toronto, I'd like to take a look at Charlottetown and Peterborough, where I was most recently living.

If you compare rental rates on Kijiji, you'll find them to be remarkably similar.

But I'd argue Peterborough offers better value.

A large can of Coors light goes for $2.90 in Ontario, and $3.99 on P.E.I. A case of Molson Canadian: $24.95 in Ontario and $26.95 on P.E.I. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

Personally, I've never paid more than $1,000 for rent and managed to live in historic buildings with multiple parking spaces, nine-foot ceilings and closets as big as the bedroom I have now.

There was no standard building code for the Island until last year. As a result, the stock of apartments and homes are not up to the standards that have been in place elsewhere for a long time. 

When I moved to P.E.I., I was struck immediately by the higher cost of groceries. It's about 15 per cent higher. Value was an issue here as well, with food often suffering from poor handling.

In the liquor store, a tallboy of Coor's at the LCBO is $2.90; it's $3.99 at P.E.I. Liquor. Wine also tends to be more expensive, particularly for lower-priced ones.

Copper Moon is a wine I often use for cooking that the LCBO sells at $8.25 for a 750-ml bottle. In P.E.I., that same bottle runs for $12.79. That's over 50 per cent more per bottle! 

HST, at 15 per cent compared to Ontario's 13 per cent, is a surprisingly noticeable difference at the till.

The restaurants in Charlottetown are some of the most expensive I've ever encountered, which is baffling.

Chasing workers away

When it comes to a shortage of workers on the Island, wages are the issue.

The construction industry here has been chasing workers away with poor wages for decades. The cost-of-living excuse needs to be put to rest.

It's time for the industry to face the facts and pay people wages appropriate for their work.


David Searle is a construction worker on P.E.I.