P.E.I. grappling with shortage of school counsellors and social workers

P.E.I.’s Public Schools Branch says it is having difficulty finding eligible candidates to hire as school guidance counsellors.

Many public sector positions are vacant, partly due to recruitment challenges

The Public Schools Branch has expanded the eligibility criteria for school counsellors to more broadly include social workers, while that industry says they are also finding it hard to fill positions. (Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia)

Prince Edward Island's Public Schools Branch says it is having difficulty finding eligible candidates to hire as school guidance counsellors — but one of its solutions may further complicate issues elsewhere in the province's social support network.

Only 40 of P.E.I.'s 62 schools have a full-time guidance counsellor at the moment, and 13 of those positions were new this year. 

Terri MacAdam, director of student services with the Public Schools Branch (PSB), said situating a full-time guidance counsellor in every school is a priority, but finding enough eligible candidates has been a struggle.

She said there is a shortage of school counsellors nationally, not just in Prince Edward Island, "so we did find this year we were having difficulty filling positions and some positions did remain vacant for a long period of time."

The shortage traces back to a time when there were not a lot of job opportunities for guidance counsellors, "so maybe people went off in different areas." 

Open more broadly to social workers

The PSB has now broadened the eligibility criteria for school counsellors to include people who have a masters in social work — even those without an education degree. 

MacAdam said priority will still be given to candidates with an education background, but PSB managers felt they had to widen the search to include social workers who have experience working with children outside a school setting, for the benefit of Island students.

Director of student services Terri MacAdam says the Public Schools Branch is working very hard to have one counsellor in each school, but recruitment challenges continue at the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened demand. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

"We don't want to leave schools with no support," she said. "After the year we've put in, we had more children that needed that support."

After nearly 13 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left normal routines disrupted in an unprecedented way, "we're seeing a higher-than-normal level of anxiety amongst children… I think we're seeing a higher level of anxiety in society, so that reflects on the children coming into the schools."

MacAdam also said the branch will be embarking on a new recruitment campaign targeted at school counsellors, focusing on the importance of the role.

"That's so huge, for a child to know: 'There's somebody in this building, no matter what, that has my back and I can tell them anything.'"

Social workers also in short supply

At the same time the PSB has broadened the eligibility criteria to be more inclusive of social workers, the association for that profession said recruitment is approaching a "crisis level" these days. 

"There's a strong, long history of school counsellors and social workers in the community working really well together," said P.E.I. Association of Social Workers president Bruce Davison. "I don't think we see this in competitive terms because of that work that's happened really effectively in the past."

However, he added, "We have some limitations here as well. We haven't been able to fill all the positions we have, and at the same time, here's some new opportunities."

We're seeing ... a relatively new openness by people to say, "Look, I need help with this."— Bruce Davison, P.E.I. Association of Social Workers

Among the P.E.I. government departments that employ social workers or hire those with social work education and experience, there are currently nearly three dozen positions that have not been filled.

Counting permanent and temporary positions, the Department of Social Development and Housing has eight vacancies, Justice and Public Safety has three, and Health PEI has 23 — for a total of 34 vacancies across the three departments.

"We are still struggling to fill social work positions," said Davison. 

"Happily, we're seeing some evidence that government is open to having some serious discussions about how we might do that. There is a provincial social worker recruitment committee that's quite effective, and it's been meeting."

Filing the gap

Davison said another problem is that P.E.I. is the only Canadian province without a university hosting a School of Social Work, something he thinks may need to be looked at.

"We have a chance to really root maybe some distance programs with some local opportunities and local support," said Davison.

"The other thing is that we're probably going into an area where we may need to look again at the public sector sponsoring people to go through [schooling]. There's a lot of discussion around that in other sectors. And I think that probably that's something in the long run we should be open to seeing happen here."

Bruce Davison is the president of the P.E.I. Association of Social Workers. He says Islanders have become more willing to ask for help throughout his 24 years of practice, and that creates more demand for social workers and counsellors alike. (Zoom)

Davison said this should also apply to people pursuing a master of education degree in counselling, which would help with the school counsellor shortage. P.E.I. does not offer that option locally either.

"We're seeing increased need — and I don't celebrate the need, but what I think we're seeing is a new openness or a relatively new openness by people to say, 'Look, I need help with this' or 'I need help with that,'" he said, adding that was not the case when he started practising 24 years ago.

"We also have to look at how we continue to meet that need, and that's going to require a lot more discussion and probably some really bold thinking."

Davison said he thinks Island social workers will show significant interest in the school counsellor positions. Social workers are already involved in the student well-being teams, which were established on the Island in 2017.

Each team is responsible for one of P.E.I.'s families or groups of schools in the Public Schools Branch, and uses one of the schools as a home base. Team members reach out to students when they receive a referral from schools, pediatricians, psychiatrists, family doctors, parents or the students themselves.   

Lack of competitive wages, in-province schooling are major barriers in recruiting social workers on P.E.I., association says

5 months ago
'It isn't seen as a viable career choice for some people who would be interested in the helping professions because we're looking at programs in other provinces, or distance programs,' says Bruce Davison, president of the P.E.I. Association of Social Workers. 5:41

Demand for those services is also up, and last month Education and Lifelong Learning Minister Natalie Jameson told the legislature there were some vacancies on the student well being teams as well. 

The province's 2021/22 operational budget has money to add 12 new school counsellor positions, but the budget has not yet been approved by the legislature.

More from CBC P.E.I.


Nicola MacLeod is a reporter with CBC in P.E.I.


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