Whistler jobs go vacant as winter season moves into high gear
By Robyn Cubie
From the outside, Whistler looks poised for another bumper season. The tardy snow has arrived in a flurry of enthusiasm and the streets are filled with tourists, not to mention the anticipation of Christmas.
However, whether local businesses have enough staff to meet the demand is less certain. Take a walk through the village and it doesn’t take long for the severity of the situation to sink in. Between AlpenRock and the Brew House for example, approximately every third shop has a staff vacancy sign in the window. A less in-your-face recruiting drive is also underway within local newspapers, at the employment centre and on public notice boards. A quick glance at this paper’s own classifieds last week reveals six pages worth of employment advertisements by some 60 companies looking for staff. This contrasts sharply with the 16 businesses looking to hire through the paper at the same time last year.
A massive recruitment drive in a town as driven by seasonal visitor fluctuations as Whistler isn’t really so unusual. What is out of the ordinary is the hunt for workers so late in the season — a mere three weeks before the peak Christmas rush. Or is this becoming the new norm?
Restaurateur John Grills says he has been advertising steadily since early fall in anticipation of an employee crunch situation.
"We never tried street recruiting because can you imagine going to a restaurant and seeing a Chef Wanted sign in the window — people would think, who’s cooking now?" he laughs.
Grills’ efforts have paid off with his core staff of 25 employees at Zeuski’s Taverna and 35 staff at Thai One On all onboard and ready for the busy winter season. However, he says the real test will come in February, when staff are less desperate for work after the Christmas period earnings and skier volumes are still increasing.
Another staffing problem unique to mountain resorts is that some natural attrition occurs through sporting injuries, Grills added.
As the Town Plaza representative on the Commercial Core Committee that reports to Tourism Whistler, Grills is in touch with how other businesses are faring. He says everyone, especially the smaller retail shops, are concerned about impending worker shortages, particularly given last year was so difficult.
It is a valid concern. A survey by the Whistler Housing Authority last winter revealed employers were short some 650 workers during the peak of the 1999/2000 season — a crucial factor for many companies that rely on the winter trade to get them through the quiet shoulder seasons.
A subsequent poll last summer showed local businesses will generate 14,200 jobs this winter — an increase of 700 over last winter.
The housing shortage
The finger of blame for the employee shortfall points mainly at Whistler’s accommodation — or lack thereof. Upward spiralling rental prices teamed with an extremely tight rental pool means some people are paying more than $1,000 a month for the privilege of sharing a room with several others. Even those willing and able to pay are being left out in the cold or are taking desperate measures to find a space. Just check out Pique’s classifieds last week, where someone is willing to pay a $100 reward to the fairy godmother who can find them a place to live.
Whistler Housing Authority administrator Tim Wake agrees that housing is tight in Whistler but cautions against a panic about an employee crisis yet. He says the accommodation situation ultimately comes down to the private sector, which provides two-thirds of the bed rental pool in Whistler.
"Another 500 employee-restricted beds have been added into the system since last year, primarily through the 19 Mile Creek development in Alpine and the Nesters project on Seppo’s Way," he explained. "The big question mark lies over the private sector because there is no way of predicting what landlords will do."
Wake believes the employee housing shortage will ease year by year as town planners get a better handle on the situation. The arrival of a commuter bus service linking Whistler with Pemberton and Mount Currie earlier this fall is also expected to help bolster local staffing levels.
But will the improvements come quickly enough? Whistler youth outreach worker Greg McDonnell knows of at least a dozen young people who have already left town this season because they could not find housing. He says more will follow, unless a solution is found.
"Some (young people) are squatting and there are scores of others crowding into friends’ places because there is nowhere else to go."
McDonnell says violence could be a spin-off from the overcrowding problem and he is even encouraging some youth to try out other Canadian resorts.
Local business owners admit that accommodation is a prerequisite to employment. Grills says he won’t even interview applicants without housing because it leads to huge frustrations if they cannot be contacted locally. He says the first six months in Whistler can be really tough.
"You get off the bus with your life possessions and in a matter of days or weeks you have to find a place to live, get a job and get some revenue starting — and there is no extra accommodation available."
Grills says the housing situation needs urgent attention.
"A key part of our success in the future is that the community grows with the resort and if there is not people here to cook the food, clean the rooms and fix the dishwasher, as well as provide a feeling of community, we will go the way of a number of other resorts — great products but not able to fit the bill."
Carolyn Garro who manages Cows in Whistler also says there is no point hiring people who don’t have accommodation, because the time and money spent on training is wasted if they have to leave.
Russ Long, the owner of Katmandu Sports on Main Street, says it’s a catch-22 situation.
"Employers complain about not having staff but how many employees do they turn away? The problem is that nobody wants to hire somebody without a place to live and nobody wants to give you a place to live without a job."
Long says he has never had trouble finding staff since setting up shop seven years ago and finds it hard to understand why so many employers struggle.
"I hear it all the time and it doesn’t make sense because there are thousands of kids in town not working. I get asked every day if I need extra staff."
Grills agrees: "There is no lack of people who want to work here — it’s a great place to spend a winter, a great place to live and work, period."
Assuming this is the case, and assuming progress has been made on employee housing, can accommodation be held as the sole villain in the employee shortage scenario? Another factor could be demographics. The baby boomers of the 1960s had fewer children than their parents and now there is a shortage of the key 18 to 34 age group that traditionally pick up the resort-type jobs.
And Whistler isn’t alone in facing this dilemma. Key competitors in Colorado, including Aspen and Vail, and other tourist meccas such as Disneyland are also reporting a dearth of youth labour. The competition for those young workers is fierce, with recruitment taking place nationally and internationally in key supply markets such as the U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.
In Colorado, immigration laws have in some instances been modified to allow for recruitment of foreign workers to fill jobs that would otherwise go vacant. The success of that policy has been mixed. A group of Caribbean workers spent a cold couple of weeks in Aspen before deciding Life is a Beach, not a Mountain and headed home.
In addition to demographic obstacles, the British Columbia economy has until recently been much slower than the economies throughout the rest of North America. You have to be seriously committed to skiing to leave a well paying job in your hometown for the hassles in Whistler. As an Aspen property manager recently pointed out to the Aspen Times, with the booming national economy in the United States, ski bumming isn’t as attractive when serious wealth might be waiting elsewhere.
Or maybe, in Whistler’s case, the word has just gone out that this is a tough place to spend a winter.
What’s the answer?
So what does it take to attract staff and, more importantly, make them stay? To many companies it means going the extra mile and a half. Grills says some employers have bought accommodation for staff in a bid to gain control over their own business. As an employer in the food service industry, he helps kitchen staff by feeding them and also offers discount beer programs "to keep them happy." But he says he steers clear of becoming their landlord.
"In the instance where I had to let an employee go, would I also have to evict them? It’s not an ideal situation to be in."
Cows manager Garro says incentives such as higher wages and ski-pass privileges are essential for attracting staff, due to the stiff competition. She says Cows is a sought-after company to work for in bigger centres such as Vancouver, but no other store in the retail chain, including the Banff outlet, has as much trouble as Whistler.
"Recruitment is a never-ending process due to the constant turnover, and we have had to put the wages up quite a bit to even get some interest," Garro says.
This season Cows is trying out an incentive package for full-time employees, whereby the company buys their lift passes up-front and then is reimbursed gradually over the season. Staff who stay on until April 2001 get a 50 per cent refund on their season’s pass. Garro says even with the bonuses in place, she is still erring on the side of caution.
"I am leaving our Help Wanted sign in the window from now on because every-time I take it down an employee leaves," she laughs. "It must be jinxed or something."
Dave Davenport of Davenport Merchandising runs six business outlets in town, including Cold Coyote, Skitch, Mr. Whistler’s and Mountain Crests. Also a member of the Commercial Core Committee, he says being an employer in Whistler today goes beyond paying the wages and he believes many bosses are still missing the boat.
"The biggest thing is providing year-round, full-time work by creating hours during the slow times so they can pay the rent," he stressed. "Employee wellness also extends to nutrition, to budgeting and to issues like substance abuse, because you are often dealing with kids straight out of home for the first time."
Davenport says he has to recruit "harder and earlier" to fill his 25 staff positions because of an increasingly aggressive job market. He also believes Whistler is attracting a new breed of seasonal resident.
"I have interviewed some really good applicants this year but also a lot of really poor ones, who view a job just as a supplement to their holiday." He says he realizes people are here primarily for sport but the overall quality and number of job applicants has declined.
"I can only speculate that many young people have an unrealistic vision of what it takes to live and work here, which usually means at least a 40 to 60 hour working week," Davenport says.
To Long of Katmandu Sports, the secret of staff retention is simple.
"Give them ski time, that’s why they are here," he says. "I have no problem rearranging schedules for that reason and most employers aren’t like that." Treating your people well and meeting their needs means you won’t have a staff problem, he adds.
Long shells out around $10,000 in bonuses a year to his six-member team and believes he pays more than most places around town. "You need a minimum wage of $10 to $12 an hour to get by in Whistler."
Like Davenport, Long believes young staff need to be "mollycoddled" more in Whistler than other places and made to feel part of a workplace family. However, he admits this is easier for small businesses to achieve than large companies. Offering a sports-centred job in a town full of sports-minded people also helps, he added.
Likewise, Kym McCarthy, president of Slalom Photo Corporation in Market Place, says a specialty shop’s advantage is that it attracts employees who want to improve their craft. He says wages must be fair and reflect experience, but incentives such as health plans or ski packages are not essential for getting the right people.
"Our business tends to attract photographers who want to learn more about their profession while taking advantage of the photo shop benefits we can provide," he says. "If you are cleaning rooms at $6.50 an hour for example, you might expect perks like a ski pass or a place to live — it just depends on the job."
Slalom Photo is heading into the winter season with a core staff of eight and another 20 short-listed applicants ready to fulfil another four potential positions. Yet the recruiting poster is still tacked prominently on the entrance door — some five weeks after being first put there. McCarthy says it’s just a matter of covering your bets.
"People do leave town or find other jobs and our needs also change. New photographic innovations can raise or lower the need for extra staff and we hold off taking on new people until we gauge the seasonal demand."
Whatever the state of play for individual businesses in Whistler, it appears few are cocky about their long term staffing security and know they have to offer a pretty good employment package to retain workers.
Essentially it is the employees’ market and anyone who gets fired today, can find another job tomorrow — provided, of course, they can find a place to live.