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COMMENTARY: We have to keep closing the gap

The provincial government is now embarking on an effort to survey people who have moved away in an attempt to find out what it will take to entice them home.

I'm betting many of the answers center around the P.E.I. version of that phrase uttered by Bill Clinton during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign - "it's the economy stupid." Many of the respondents will probably say they either can't find a job in their field in P.E.I. or they can't find one that pays a comparable wage to what they are now making.

The government will then likely trot out that old chestnut about the cost of living being cheaper here. While housing prices are definitely cheaper here than in many parts of the country (although they have been escalating for the past couple of years in the Charlottetown area), the rest of the argument is largely a myth. Most other items like electricity or groceries are either the same or higher than the rest of the country.

Don't get me wrong. There is definitely a lot to be said for the pace of life and the idyllic setting of P.E.I. While nice scenery is good for those in the tourist sector and photographers, for the rest of us it doesn't usually help pay any bills.

There is no doubt there have been significant improvements, especially over the last couple of decades. Many industries that didn't exist just a few years ago, like aerospace or computer gaming, are now part of the Island economic landscape.

There is now a cluster of researchers and scientists, centered mainly around the university but also including the National Research Council and the provincial and federal governments, that have resulted in a significant number of high paying jobs coming to the Island.

As well, more and more industries are becoming geography neutral with options like working remotely becoming more and more common. These kind of developments favour areas like P.E.I. that have a small population and are some distance away from major population centres.

The City of Summerside is already doing something similar with its "Homeward Bound" program and it has achieved some successes. No doubt the provincial program will succeed in attracting some Islanders who now live away to come back home.

However, it won't achieve the numbers we all would like until more progress is made in closing the wage gap with the rest of the country. There have been some gains to be sure - wages increased faster in P.E.I. than in most other parts of the country during the last two years.

According to Statistics Canada, the average full-time wage for Island workers in January was $24.14 an hour, while the Canadian average was $28.68. Looking at it another way, you can argue that $4.54 per hour difference is actually a penalty Islanders pay for living here.

It is a price not everybody is willing to pay.

- Andy Walker is an Island-based writer and commentator.

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