P.E.I.'s rising population has planners trying to keep ahead of the curve

A legislative committee has been given a look at P.E.I.'s updated population action plan. It estimates the province's population could hit 201,000 by 2035 — and suggests what will have to change by then.

Prince Edward Island is expected to be home to 201,000 people by 2035

As P.E.I.'s population grows, provincial planners expect job vacancies will continue to be hard to fill. They say it will be important to boost the retention rate of newcomers to Canada, so that they will want to stay on the Island permanently. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

A legislative committee has been given a look at P.E.I.'s updated population action plan, which estimates the province could be home to 201,000 people by 2035.

Kal Whitnell, executive director of economic and population growth for the province, was one of two officials who presented it to the standing committee on education and economic growth on Tuesday. 

He said much preparation lies ahead as Prince Edward Island eyes that population benchmark 13 years down the road.

"What does that mean from a housing perspective? Transportation perspective? In terms of those services, whether it's health care, schooling, teachers, workforce — [there are] lots of elements and factors we have to take a look at."

Officials have been working on the plan since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to have it ready in time for the current five-year plan's expiration date at the end of 2023.

Focus on new arrivals

As P.E.I.'s population grows, Whitnell said one big focus will be boosting the retention rate — the number of immigrants who decide to continue living and working here rather than moving on to other parts of Canada.

Whitnell said the province has seen more newcomers to Canada opting to stay on P.E.I. over the past few years.

Because of this, he says the government will need to co-ordinate with external partners and build new bridges to ensure social and cultural needs for those immigrant communities are being met. 

Kal Whitnell, executive director of economic and population growth for P.E.I., said careful planning will be needed to ensure transportation, housing, education and employment develop along with the Island's growing population. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

On Tuesday, the province announced a new pilot program aimed at funding small and large projects to improve the Island's social and cultural diversity — and Whitnell thinks the Gender, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Community Enhancement Program will help.

"We do get a lot of ad-hoc requests in terms of new projects, new initiatives for newcomers, new ethnocultural groups, and this is going to be a way to help meet some of their needs and requests," he said.

Labour shortages in mind

Another aspect of the planning will be strategies to get more people into the workforce in an age when there are many more jobs than applicants to fill them, especially in the health-care field. 

Mary Hunter, the province's director of workforce development, says more Islanders are working today than there have been for decades, with unemployment levels at their lowest level since 1976.

Mary Hunter, P.E.I.'s director of workforce development, says there is a gap between the jobs available and the skills of people applying for them, and the situation may get worse before it gets better. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

But despite the jobs available on P.E.I., she said there is a labour and skills shortage across all industries when it comes to filling them. She thinks the situation may get worse before it gets better.

"Unfortunately, we are dubbed a little bit of a greying region. So we do know [that given] the age of our population — in Atlantic Canada in particular — we're going to see more individuals leaving the workforce than entering," Hunter said.

"It's really why our strategy needs to include both immigration [and] investing in Islanders that are here, domestic recruitment as well."

She said her staff members are talking to employers about finding efficiencies in how they operate to reduce their labour demands, whether it's through automation or other new technologies, given the lack of workers they will be able to attract.

Hunter also said employers will need to consider offering higher wages, so that people will want to stay in their jobs rather than pursuing other opportunities outside their current employer or even industry.

With files from Nancy Russell