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As Amazon readies Island warehouse, a hunt for couriers in a tight job market

Online retail behemoth preparing to open its last-mile distribution centre at Victoria International Airport, likely in early October. Delivery contractor aims to recruit Ukrainian refugees as couriers.

Amazon-branded delivery vans will soon be seen everywhere around the capital region as the online retail behemoth prepares to open its last-mile distribution centre at Victoria International Airport.

Ken Mayes’ company, Zenzen Logistics Canada, is one of two courier firms being contracted by Amazon to operate about 120 vehicles that will shuttle parcels and packages from the warehouse to homes and businesses in Greater Victoria and the Island.

A non-branded courier company based out of Nanaimo will handle larger ­parcels over 40 kilograms.

Mayes said he’s aware that hiring hundreds of drivers is going to be a tall order amid the region’s tight labour market, where unemployment remains one of the lowest in the country at 4.9% last month and businesses are struggling to fill all types of jobs.

“It will be very challenging because of the labour market,” said Mayes.

But he said the ­company will be heavily promoting driving and dispatching opportunities in the coming weeks and months through job fairs and advertising.

The positions are open to anyone over 21 with a Class 5 driver’s licence.

Zenzen Logistics drivers will make a minimum $21 an hour and have access to a health plan. The wage rate is under review by Amazon. Amazon is ­offering U.S. employees health-care packages and tuition reimbursement programs.

Amazon’s $65-million ­distribution centre is known as a “last-mile” sorting and ­shipping facility, where everything ordered from the Island lands there and is delivered by ­various courier companies.

The 115,000 square foot ­building is on 7.8 acres of land owned by the Victoria Airport Authority and was built by Edmonton-based York Realty.

Amazon did not reveal details of an official opening, but sources say it is likely to be Oct. 5. The company has been advertising for dozens of positions for several weeks. Messages to regional Amazon executives were not immediately returned.

Mayes said because of the low unemployment rate, ZenZenLogistics is interested in targeting Ukrainian refugees for driving positions. He said GPS systems will make it easier for newcomers to navigate the city, though they must hold a Class 5 B.C. driver’s licence.

So far, not many Ukrainian refugees to the Island have attained licences, said Devon Goldie, president of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. 

The Ukrainian Cultural Centre supports cultural activities for the newly arrived Ukrainians. 

Help Ukraine Vancouver Island is the organization helping newly arrived refugees in the region, assisting in finding housing and jobs. 

As of Sept. 16, Help Ukraine Vancouver Island has welcomed 510 Ukrainian newcomers to the Island, assisting them in getting here and providing a wide range of resources when they arrive. 

Goldie said refugees with a grasp of English won’t have a problem attaining a learner’s permit or driver’s licence, but it will take time. “It’s a tricky process” for most, she said.

The learner’s portion of the test isn’t available in Ukrainian; it’s in Russian. The Google translations, however, aren’t always accurate and cause confusion, she said.

“When it comes time to do the road test, it has to be in English, and there is no option to have a translator in the car,” said Goldie. “That’s the biggest challenge.”

Goldie said some of the refugees with little or no English have been able to secure jobs in housekeeping, entry level construction jobs and backroom stocking positions at grocery stores.

Others, however, who do have English have been hired in government, technology and law offices and at post-secondary institutions.

Al Hasham, president and chief executive of Maximum Express Courier, Freight and Logistics in Victoria, said Amazon’s fleet will face challenges hiring drivers.

Hasham said his company has delivered Amazon packages as a third-party for overflows from courier companies such as Purolater and FedEx, but sticks to its own local customers. That way, he said, the company can operate only on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., and offer its drivers decent working hours — and better pay at about $23 an hour.

Those working conditions have allowed Hasham to retain drivers on average 12 to 13 years. “It’s very difficult to get good drivers — anyone these days,” he said.

Hasham said he’s down four drivers due to recent cases of COVID-19, and has had to pull drivers out of the family’s Vancouver operations to cover the Victoria area. “I’ve been in business since 1987 and have sen a lot of the ups and downs of hiring … this is definitely a down time,” he said.

Hasham said employees “want a life,” and that means fair working hours and above-average wages.

Mayes set up a courier system for Amazon in the Winnipeg area and has returned to Victoria with Zzenzen Logistics. He owned yoga studios in Victoria for more than two decades, and said he wants to create an “inclusive” and respectful workplace with the delivery company.

“Most people, I think, while wages are important, want to work in a place that has a culture of respect and flexibility,” said Mayes, noting that can include things like tuition support and health benefit packages that include offset costs of pharmaceuticals, chiropractic care and counselling.

“We’re going to employ 130 people here in Victoria and we want a range of ages, genders, religions in our workforce.

“For many drivers, especially newcomers, they can work in neighbourhoods with route affinity and really get to know the people who live there and do business there.”

Mayes estimates his fleet of 12-foot-long Ford Transit 250 vans will deliver between 4,000 and 7,000 packages a day, with peak times being the Christmas season.

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