CHARLOTTETOWN — Drive the red clay roads of rural Prince Edward Island and one cannot help but notice a reoccurring trend.
Everyone you meet in these small communities is in their 50s, at least. Many are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, their wrinkled hands roughened by years of hard work.
Islanders are aging. It’s a characteristic that’s hard to miss in this quaint collection of villages featuring whitewashed houses surrounded by dusty red fields filled with acres of lush soybean, corn and potato crops.
In the past several years the average age of an islander has jumped to 43.1. That’s including the young families, most of whom live in and around Charlottetown, which means the median age in rural communities is even higher.
The rapidly aging population is proving to be both a political and economic challenge. For government it means more strains on provincial resources such as health care and other social services.
Economically, it’s meant a huge labour crunch, an issue that has dominated headlines for years thanks to federal cuts to Employment Insurance and recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Agriculture is P.E.I.’s largest industry, contributing $500 million in farmgate sales annually.
However, finding people to work in the fields, processing plants and other parts of the supply chain isn’t easy, despite an 11 percent unemployment rate.
“Labour is our biggest issue,” John Jamieson, executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, tells a bus full of farm writers as it zips through the countryside.
He said workers are in short supply for everything from extra hands at harvest time to those needed to work in the processing plants and crop storage facilities year round.
Finding extra workers, or even essential labour, is a mounting challenge for farmers and other stakeholders across the country. P.E.I.’s aging population and the fact most of the work on the island is seasonal only adds to the problem.
Like much of the Maritimes, most of the province’s young people are heading west, drawn to the lucrative wages of the Alberta oilsands.
Jamieson said the lack of young people means older residents are left trying to pick up the slack, often doing jobs that would have been done by younger folks in years past.
For example, he tells me, as we stand in the middle of local cheese shop surrounded by mountains of golden gouda, that last week he got a call about cows that had escaped from their pasture. Everyone chasing them was older than 60.
Then there’s the fact that most work in P.E.I. — be it in tourism, fisheries or agriculture — is seasonal. The shortage of full-time jobs was heightened recently with the news that McCain’s will close its potato processing plant in Borden at the end of this month with a loss of 121 jobs.
Residents tell me that folks are constantly looking for work.
In recent years, residents had de-pended on Employment Insurance or the Temporary Foreign Workers Program to fill the voids. However, recent changes by the federal government have made it more difficult to rely on these programs.
Some employees on the island are grateful for the changes to EI because it forces people to look for work on the island year round, which is an attitude shift some admit has been difficult for some folks to accept. However, most say the EI changes make it hard to retain the same people year after year.
Others say islanders are finding it more difficult to fill the number of weeks they need to qualify for EI, leaving many with no income at all.
As for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the federal government has promised that the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program will not be affected. However, fish farms and packing plants that depend on the program for staff are clearly worried.
The staff of at least one operation on the island is made up of 52 percent foreign workers, many of whom, a resident tells me, eventually stay as permanent residents.
Many more have staff lists where 20 to 25 percent of their labour force are temporary foreign workers. This reliance is repeatedly linked to the nature of the work. Much of it is labour intensive, with lots of heavy lifting.
With fewer young people on the island, it is next to impossible to find able-bodied folks willing to do the work, which in a potato packing plant often starts around $11 an hour.
However, increasing those wages isn’t always possible as company margins shrink thanks to soaring freight and other operational costs.
And with more workers taking their retirement, islanders say the labour crunch is only going to get worse.