Help wanted 

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It's hard to walk into a store these days without seeing a "Help Wanted" sign.

I've even heard workers being offered jobs while they are working — by the very people they are serving.

Signs of the times?

Perhaps. But the disturbing thing is that the issue of labour shortages in Whistler has been front and centre for more than a decade.

In 2005 go2HR, B.C.'s tourism industry human resources association, commissioned a report on the Sea to Sky region and found that the gap created by the growing job market was being increasingly exacerbated by the rapidly shrinking labour pool. No surprise there, then or now.

Back then a significant reason for the labour shortage was the booming oil patch — not so today. So where are all the workers looking for work?

They aren't looking for jobs that pay $11/hour in the fast-paced service industry. Workers are looking for living wages and benefits in other sectors also hurting for employees, such as construction — though if the Whistler Summer 2015 Facebook page is any indication, construction companies are having trouble recruiting as well.

That same study highlighted the need for foreign workers. It found that there were roughly 3,000 full-time equivalent employment opportunities that need to be filled from outside the Sea to Sky corridor annually — in 2005!

"It would indicate to me that we've got to really look at opening a better dialogue with the federal and provincial governments in terms of the flexibility with respect to foreign workers," said John Leschyson, then director of industry human resource development with go2HR.

A year later the Whistler Chamber of Commerce hired a recruiting specialist to try and get better and bring more candidates to the Whistler job fairs in the fall.

Stop me if you feel like this story is a broken record.

In 2012 go2HR and the provincial Ministry of Tourism did another study — the BC Tourism Labour Market Strategy.

The document identified several strategic priorities, which included working with stakeholders such as resort municipalities more in the future.

So the provincial Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training announced $70,000 in new funding to collect data from 14 resorts, including Whistler, over five months in 2012 to "identify resort community labour market trends, gaps, practices and employee recruitment challenges..."

That in turn was to support the development of a larger strategic analysis of the labour market to ensure that recruitment, training and retention programs for employees in the tourism industry fit in with the needs of the employers.

The study indicated that more than 71,000 tourism job openings were expected in the Vancouver, coast and mountain region — including the Sea to Sky corridor — by 2020. It also predicted the serious shortages could start in 2014 — a prediction that came true and remains true today.

On the other side of this scale, which should be in balance but is dipping dangerously down on the labour side, is tourism itself. The province's five-year tourism strategy, Gaining the Edge, unveiled as part of its B.C. Jobs Plan, set a target of doubling tourism revenues in B.C. from $9 billion to $18 billion by 2015.

The most recent Statistics Canada data states that the province generated $13.9 billion in tourism revenue in 2013, with experts predicting the government's target may be reached by 2018.

British Columbia has shown strong growth in international overnight visitors with the most recent overall numbers up by an additional 34,785 visitors, or 8.3 per cent over May 2014, and year-to-date up by 103,993 visitors, or 7.8 per cent, during the same period last year.

Provincial officials are travelling across the nation trying to get B.C. jobs filled, but there is increasingly no one to serve all these visitors. The great danger here is obvious and worrisome — if visitors to Whistler or other places get subpar service they won't come back again, and they will tell their friends.

All these reports talk strategy, such as how to recruit, how to keep your staff, how important training is in tourism and at the business level. Most businesses have implemented a form of PRIDE (Provide a positive working environment, Recognize, reward and reinforce the right behaviour, Involve and engage, Develop skills and potential and Evaluate and measure). It's not enough anymore.

On the face of it at least, nothing seems to be working. Would higher wages and more affordable living circumstances help? Of course. But what small business struggling now to survive can afford to pay more money?

Would more temporary foreign workers help? Undoubtedly.

What won't work is the status quo.

If this issue is to be addressed for the coming ski season, businesses and organizations big and small in Whistler need to put their heads together and brainstorm. This is a community issue now and it can only become manageable if everyone is on board.

The Chamber's Whistler Experience program is part of the solution go2HR's CEO Arlene Keiss told Pique this week.

"It is brilliant... This is going to really set Whistler apart. It is collaboration as a community... you all have the same problem as a resort community.

"I think it has the potential to be a world-class initiative, quite honestly. You are going to have people coming to work there to get that experience to put on their resume. You are creating an experience for these employees as a community... so what can set you apart from everyone else is that experience."



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