NL·The Grind

This therapist can't afford her dream job — and gave it up so she could pay rent

Kelsey Arsenault is a music therapist. But she had to give it up to make ends meet. Now she's working a desk job to pay off the degree she got for a job she just can't do.

Kelsey Arsenault was working 3 jobs to get by before she had to give it all up

A woman with long curly brown hair and a paisley scarf sits in front of a piano.
Musician Kelsey Arsenault thought bridging music and health care in music therapy was the perfect occupation. Until she couldn't pay her bills. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

This is Part 2 of The Grind, a new series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador on people who are working multiple jobs to offset the rising cost of living. 


Guitars and basses adorn the walls of Kelsey Arsenault's St. John's living room.

There's a cello tucked into the corner, beside a keyboard waiting to be shoved in its case and lugged to the next downtown gig. Her framed music degree hangs above an old upright piano.

These days, Arsenault is using the instruments less than ever.

The 28-year-old had to give up on her dream job last year, when she realized that despite juggling multiple jobs — like a growing number of Canadians — she still couldn't afford to pay rent. 

Arsenault holds a master's degree in music therapy. When she moved home to Newfoundland to start her practice, she picked up two part-time therapy positions — one of them with a provincial health authorities — and handled, at her peak, about 28 clients. 

But with the cost of groceries, bills and fuel rising across Canada in the past two years, she realized her income needed a boost.

"I was getting by … but then I needed to pick up a third job, really to supplement my income because I just couldn't make my rent," Arsenault says, sitting on the bench of her worn piano. 

"I had bills to pay. I had student loans from the degree I just got."

WATCH | Kelsey Arsenault on leaving her career passion out of necessity

She has a master’s degree and held 3 jobs — but needed a desk job to ‘survive’

6 months ago
Duration 3:28
Kelsey Arsenault is a trained music therapist, and even though she had two jobs in her field — in addition to working in a bar in downtown St. John’s — she had to give it all up to pay the bills. Sarah Antle tells her story as part of the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador series The Grind.

One in a million

Arsenault is one of a million Canadians who work more than one job, according to a StatsCan report published in August. As CBC News reported last week, one-third of those now work multiple jobs out of necessity, as opposed to by choice.

In the St. John's metro area, ballooning rent in the last two years — compounded by a tighter housing supply and the rising cost of consumer goods — has left people like Arsenault racking up jobs to keep up with the inflationary squeeze.

Arsenault's third job saw her serving in a downtown bar.

"That was going on till 3 a.m., and then I was getting up in the morning and working with a little kid," she recalled. 

"It just was exhausting. When you're working with a lot of complex needs and different emotions, you've got to give a lot of yourself to those positions.… You're really putting a lot into that."

A girl sits at an electric keyboard, looking at the camera.
Kelsey Arsenault has been playing piano as long as she can remember. (Submitted by Kelsey Arsenault)

Arsenault gave up her therapy career and serving gig last fall, trading it for a nine-to-five desk job that she finds emotionally unstimulating but pays about $60,000 a year. After taxes and deductions, she brings home about two-thirds of that. (In order to protect Arsenault's livelihood, CBC News has agreed not to identify her current employer.)

It's the kind of uninspiring office career she spent her 20s trying to avoid, but now requires to pay off her degree. 

And that degree was meant to land her an occupation that she loves but can no longer afford.

"I was working evenings, working mornings, working all kinds of scattered shifts just to get through," Arsenault said. Rising rent — and over $35,000 in student debt — became an increasingly crushing burden.

"It came down to really needing to … pay my bills, do what I had to do to survive."

These days, music has taken a backseat but remains a second job that takes up the vast majority of her spare time. She spends evenings and weekends rehearsing, practising and composing, refusing to allow her array of instruments to gather dust.

"When you're starting a dream and you're going for it," she says, "[you think], 'This is going to be it.' Like, 'I'm going to be a music therapist. I'm going to start my own private practice.' 

"And then you … get out in the real world, and, like — you're trying to buy a block of cheese."

A woman in a black floral dress stands on a stage singing with a guitar.
Arsenault, who released her first album this year, says the silver lining in giving up her dream job was being able to work on her music. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

A disturbing trend

Experts contacted by CBC News have painted a grim picture for working Canadians in 2023.

"The price of everything we buy has been going up rapidly," says Walid Hejazi, an economics professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

"Our incomes are not keeping up, which means our purchasing power is falling. Which means all of these people that were barely making ends meet in the best of times now all of a sudden are incredibly challenged."

You … get out in the real world, and, like — you're trying to buy a block of cheese.- Kelsey Arsenault

Julia Smith, an assistant professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba, says Canada is seeing a trend of workers unable to use their education — "folks going to school for degrees or diplomas or whatever it is … and then coming out and not necessarily being able to find work."

Smith says more and more people are having to give up jobs that they are passionate about to cover their life expenses. 

"Do I need to get a second job? Can I keep this job? Do I just cut back? Do I skip meals?" Those are the questions people are asking themselves, she says.

Karen Foster, an associate professor at Dalhousie University, researches the sociology of work. She says there's a direct link between socioeconomics and health. 

"We aren't meant to work 24 hours a day," she says. "We're meant to have rest and have community time and family time and friend time and alone time." 

In rural Atlantic Canada, holding several jobs at once — also known as occupational pluralism — isn't a historically rare phenomenon. Often, it permits the worker the flexibility to earn an income where and when they want, particularly in small, remote economies, or do something they love — such as make and perform music.

Workers unable to use their education

But Foster has noticed a disturbing trend.

"The problem arises when those multiple jobs are incompatible, or burn you out, or are not freely chosen," Foster says.

"And in our current economy, more people are being pushed into this bad version of [multiple job holding]."

But Arsenault hopes that by combining music and health cares means generating a modest income that could keep her housed and fed.

"I do hope to go back to doing music therapy someday, but I'm doing this for right now," she says.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Antle

Journalist

Sarah Antle is a journalist working with CBC in the St. John's bureau.