Prince Edward Island’s strategy to bolster its labour force through immigration, a long-touted government approach, appears to be faltering, particularly in the construction sector. 

Despite the provincial government’s efforts to address labour shortages through immigration, data indicates that these measures have scarcely impacted the construction industry, fueling the ongoing housing crisis.

Statistic Canada’s 2021 census showed that of the over 5,000 non-permanent residents in P.E.I., a mere 125 held the highest educational certificate in trades, accounting for less than one in 40 of these residents. These non-permanent residents include recent arrivals seeking permanent residency, temporary foreign workers, and students. 

The situation is even more pronounced according to Island Investment Development Inc.’s 2022-2023 Annual Report. The provincial agency responsible for immigration to P.E.I. nominated 1,874 people to come to the province. Of these nominations, 11 people’s level of education was in trades or apprenticeships — accounting for just less than 0.6%.

One of the biggest problems the construction industry faces is a worker shortage, said the Construction Association of P.E.I. 

“Without that skilled labour, there’s no possible way we build more housing,” Sam Sanderson, general manager of the association, told the CBC

The housing crisis in P.E.I. has been escalating since 2019, characterized by plummeting apartment vacancy rates, which fell to below 1% in 2022, and rising house prices. The median price of a single detached home rose almost 6% between the fourth quarter of 2022 and 2023.

The core of this issue lies in the construction industry’s struggle to build apartment buildings, condos, and single-family homes quickly enough to keep pace with the rapidly growing population. 

“Money is never going to solve the problem. It’s people, and if we don’t start bringing those skilled people in, we’re really going to be in more trouble,” said Sanderson.

Job vacancies in some trades-related industries, such as construction and fabricated metal product manufacturing, reached record highs in 2022, according to P.E.I.’s census publication.

According to the province’s own report, between 2016 and 2021, 4,860 people immigrated to the province. 610 of these immigrants were in worker programs. Zero were classified as skilled trades workers. 

The 2021 census showed that among those aged 25 to 64 already living in P.E.I., 6.7% (about 1 in 15) of that population had their highest education in an apprenticeship or non-apprenticeship trades certificate. In Canada, this total is 9.7% (about 1 in 10). 

New immigrants into Canada from other countries that work in construction are 2%, which a CIBC report from June 2023 claims has been trending downward over the past decade.

Housing starts in P.E.I. fell from 442 to 253 between the third and fourth quarter of 2023 — a decrease of almost 43%.

The situation is not improving, said Sanderson.

“It’s a discussion we’ve been having not only locally, regionally, but nationally as well — the low volume of skilled trades that have been coming into Canada.”

The challenges in the construction sector are partly attributed to the intricacies of Canada’s immigration system. The system favours candidates with long-term job guarantees, a criterion that rarely aligns with the nature of construction work. This mismatch makes it difficult for local employers to meet the requirements for recruiting foreign workers in the construction industry.

“There’s not many employers, if any, on Prince Edward Island that can really guarantee somebody a year to meet the criteria for the immigration process,” explained Sanderson. 

In recent years, P.E.I.’s provincial nominee program (PNP) has shifted its focus from entrepreneurs to workers, with 97% of PNP invitations in 2023 aimed at the workforce stream. 

However, details regarding the specific sectors these workers are intended for remain unclear. The province has not provided a breakdown of the sectors targeted by these invitations, nor has it mentioned its plans to increase the number of construction workers recruited.