P.E.I.'s workforce becomes a top election issue as labour shortage wears on

Prince Edward Island’s labour shortage — which is affecting every sector from health care to agriculture and small business — has emerged as a major issue ahead of the upcoming provincial election.

'Recruiting labour and retaining labour is one of the major issues that we’re facing'

An educator plays with three kids at a daycare centre.
Daycare director Katera Arsenault spends her days working on the floor to maintain the required ratio of kids to educators. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Prince Edward Island's labour shortage, which is affecting every sector from health care to agriculture and small business, has emerged as a major issue ahead of the April 3 provincial election.

The province's unemployment rate has historically been one of the highest in the country, but Statistics Canada data has been showing that growth in the Island's workforce hasn't kept up with the growth rate in the number of jobs in recent years.

Katera Arsenault, the director at Le Jardin des Étoiles daycare in Summerside, needs to fill three vacancies just to get back to regular staffing levels, and doesn't know how she'd manage if she lost anyone else. It's especially challenging to find certified French-speaking educators on P.E.I., she said.

"It's scary not being able to recruit and just have the staff come to work every day," she said.

"We have to recruit internationally and it's not always easy to find either the right fit for your centre, or you recruit someone but it takes a long time to get all their papers and everything in order."

'Shortages everywhere'

Since the beginning of March, Arsenault has spent her days working on the floor with kids in the centre to maintain the required ratio of children to caregivers, which means putting administrative and support tasks on hold.

"There's shortages everywhere … and it's really a scary thought, because who's going to run these places? And you don't want your staff that [you] currently have to burn out, either," she said.

"We've never had a high turnover, but if we can't recruit the staff — the certified staff — I'm afraid that we're going to have turnover."

A woman stands indoors at a microphone with a CBC gem on it
Le Jardin des Étoiles director Katera Arsenault doesn't understand why politicians promise new daycare spaces when there's no staff to work at the centres as it is. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Arsenault has around 80 children on her waiting list, mostly infants. She points out that if people can't return to work after parental leave, that further restricts the Island's labour supply.

"I get phone calls and emails daily looking for spots, and currently I am full until 2024 September… and from what I hear from parents, it's the reality at all centres," she said.

"It's all nice for people to say, 'Let's open up more spaces, let's open up more child care centres,' but if you don't have the staff to work, why are we opening up new spaces?"

What the parties are promising

All four of P.E.I.'s major political parties are promising to address the labour shortage.

The Progressive Conservatives are pledging to grow the workforce to 90,000 jobs by 2026, work with the federal government to bring in immigrants to help fill the gap, establish labour incentives to assist the tourism sector in staffing hard-to-fill positions, and provide assistance for housing supports to help recruit workers.

The Green Party says it would immediately increase the minimum wage to $15.20 an hour, develop a strategy to address shortages in key industries like construction, update the student debt forgiveness program to encourage more people to stay and work on P.E.I. after graduation, and review labour programs to improve worker retention during slower periods in the seafood industry.

The Liberal Party platform includes a promise to develop a seasonal worker benefits program to help recruit Islanders working in seasonal jobs to expand their time in the labour market, expand immigration recruitment for agriculture workers, and support the tourism industry in promoting job opportunities in the sector.

The New Democrats are pledging to eliminate community college tuition fees, ease the restrictions for qualified immigrant workers to work on P.E.I., work with trade unions to help create trades colleges and training institutions, and increase the wages of child care workers.

Labour is 'number one issue'

P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association executive director Jerry Gavin said his members are losing workers to retirement as the local workforce ages, and they're "just about impossible" to replace.

"Labour is our number one challenge in the seafood processing sector.… It is the number one issue," he said.

"Every one of our members would be looking for workers, no doubt about that. It's a challenge every year and from my perspective, and from my members' perspective, quite frankly it's getting worse."

cows in a field
P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture executive director Donald Killorn wants the province to promote farm work as a viable career option to help grow the workforce. (Darryl Dyck/the Canadian Press)

Gavin estimates the industry is short on average about 10 per cent of the workers it needs. 

And it's just as much of a challenge for Prince Edward Island farmers.

"Workforce issues are a significant issue in P.E.I.'s agriculture industry. Recruiting labour and retaining labour is one of the major issues that we're facing," said P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture executive director Donald Killorn.

He estimates 40 per cent of the workforce is now made up of foreign labourers, and the cost of recruiting and housing those workers is significant.

"It's definitely a consideration whenever a farm is thinking about expansion," Killorn said. "But unquestionably, it is a drain on the bottom line even in a status-quo operation. The costs of recruiting and retaining a workforce have ballooned as we've lost access to a local workforce."

He said the province needs to put more emphasis on promoting farm work as a career path for Islanders.

'It's been a lot of work'

It's the same story at the P.E.I. Bag Company in Bedeque, where general manager Thane Smallwood said finding workers is a huge challenge.

"I would suggest that over the last four or five years, it's changed significantly," he said.

"In the past you would put an advertisement on the local job board or Kijiji or Facebook and you'd have 30 or 40 that would be applying. Today your reach has to go much, much farther.… It's not just local employees, it's immigrant employees from all over the world, and it's employees from other industries."

A woman indoors in front of a microphone with a CBC gem
Rev. W.J. Phillips Residence executive director Colleen Parker says her seniors' care centre has been hit with a 'perfect storm' of retirements and an aging population. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The company has grown from 40 to 55 employees, but turnover is high and that puts a strain on everyone, as long-term employees take on the task of training new workers who don't end up staying.

"We've been reasonably successful, but it's been a lot of work," Smallwood said. "It's certainly one of the top priorities and something that we're dealing with on a daily basis."

'A perfect storm'

Colleen Parker, the executive director of the Rev. W.J. Phillips Residence in Alberton, said every industry on the Island is competing for the same limited labour pool, and not-for-profits like the seniors' care centre can't compete with the wages and benefits offered elsewhere.

"It was a perfect storm that was going to happen," Parker said. "A number of people have retired, and an aging population, but right now I think every industry has been challenged to have enough employees."

Food service has been one of the most challenging positions to fill, she said, and the centre struggled to find a replacement after a recent retirement.

"So we did have to become creative," Parker said. "I had an employee who jumped in and learned how to cook the menu until we were able to get somebody else hired."

'It's the ultimate conversation'

Summerside Chamber of Commerce executive director Kaley O'Brien said the staffing shortage is the single biggest issue facing the chamber's members — and businesses are losing money because of it.

"Right now it's the ultimate conversation that we are experiencing with our membership," O'Brien said, citing a recent survey.

A sign for workers to apply
The labour shortage is affecting every industry on the Island. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"People are providing less service and less product due to inflation but also … staffing constraints are forcing them down a path that they have to close their operations earlier than they ever have. They have to pick and choose when to be open around the labour shortage."

With the busy tourism season on the horizon, she said, some business owners don't know where they'll find the workers to get them through the crunch.

"It's the biggest fear for the tourism industry, the fear that they won't be able to find the workers to be able to staff their establishments in the busiest season of the year," she said.

"We're seeing employers needing to work the front line just because they can't find the employees … and P.E.I. being a very tourism-based island, it is a growing fear."