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Meet the new recruits

It's not just a shortage of workers that Whistler is facing, but a new generation with new expectations. Ralph Forsyth looks ahead to worker challenges.
It’s a perfect storm for these scarce recruits who have a reputation for being the most cynical workforce ever. Photo by Scott Brammer,

If you have a heartbeat and promise not to rob me blind then you’re hired!

This may become a familiar refrain with Whistler’s employers this season as the resort ramps up for winter. Long gone are the days when business owners could choose from a big stack of resumes of oh so well groomed and mannered twenty-somethings looking to live the dream of ski bumming in Whistler.

The competition for workers is tight. According to the Tourism Labour Market Demand Analysis for the Sea-to-Sky Region, prepared by Ruth Emery of Canbritic Consultants Ltd, "Overall, Whistler requires 3,000 to 3,500 workers beyond the numbers available in the resident workforce to conduct the year’s tourism business. This is even once the availability of a surplus workforce in the surrounding Squamish-Lillooet area is factored in."

It’s a perfect storm for these scarce recruits who have a reputation for being the most cynical workforce ever. Boldly pierced and blatantly tattooed, this generation tends to distrust hierarchy and is deeply cynical about business in general, and finds service industry work… demeaning.

With so much of the Whistler experience riding on frontline staff how can employers ensure they are recruiting, training and retaining the best employees?

Crisis, what crisis?

Compounding the employee shortage problem is the fact that the young and the freshly graduated (who have soul-crushing student loans to repay) have very good options for employment. Even if Whistler’s wages increase there’s no guarantee that the town will be attractive to young workers. As the Emery report notes, "While earnings (in Whistler) for the resident workforce in the key tourism occupations is higher than the B.C. average for the same occupations, earnings are still generally below those seen in many other sectors and occupations. Many of the industries now looking to recruit young workers, such as mining, oil & gas, and construction are offering higher pay rates as well as permanent and full time work. This pay difference has been the case for many years. What is different now is that these industries are actively recruiting, compared to being in lay-off mode as they were until a year ago."

Recently released are two reports tabled by local organizations on how Whistler is going to overcome the current labour crunch. The reports titled, "Recruitment Strategy for the Sea to-Sky Region" by local consultant Bernie Lalor-Morton of Focus Forward Coaching and Consulting, and "Stakeholder Consultation and Qualitative Research Study" produced by William Roberts and Mechthild (Mecki) Facundo of Leadership Sea-to-Sky, have many similar themes and recommendations on how to solve our human resources conundrum.

Lalor-Morton’s recruitment strategy recommends several tactics to increase employee levels, including focusing recruiting on specific candidate groups, especially those traditionally underrepresented; developing a coordinated and collaborative effort on behalf of each community in the corridor; reversing the negative perceptions of the tourism industry as a viable career path; and addressing the high cost of living associated with residing in the corridor.

The recommendations in the stakeholder consultation report are similar and contain specific items to be addressed including: "reinvigorating the Whistler image and aggressively promoting the Sea-To-Sky lifestyle/benefits to targeted labour pool markets, lobbying/advocating by stakeholders and the public of government at all levels, creative approaches to enhancing lifestyle benefits, incentives and perks, fostering a network of support for human resources, and twinning recreational excellence with educational/training excellence."

The recruitment strategy report also recommends the creation of a corridor recruitment team. The role of this team would be focused on six key result areas in recruiting: Aboriginal people, foreign workers, post-secondary students, immigrants residing in Canada, youth, and other people within Canada.

It’s reassuring to note that both reports recommend similar strategies, (the consultations were held over several weeks this spring where members of communities throughout the corridor were asked what they thought would help ease the employee shortage). It is evidence that the issue is top of mind and that the community and the experts are singing from the same song sheet.

Bernie Lalor-Morton, who participated in the Community Dialogue sessions as well, suggests that recruiting can no longer be business as usual. "The corridor can neither rely on the reputation it once enjoyed nor continue to believe that workers will come because they are solely attracted by the lifestyle. Maintaining the status quo in recruiting will no longer serve the business community."

Lalor-Morton noted that, "Attracting more workers to the region requires a proactive, outreach approach."

A proactive outreach approach is something championed by Louise Lundy, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. The Whistler Chamber is sending the same message to senior levels of government as the Canadian Chamber, which believes immigration will provide the single largest avenue to address the skills and labour shortage.

Lundy said the chamber has taken a two-pronged approach to the labour shortage.

"The chamber has identified the labour shortage in Whistler as our number one priority. We hear from our members daily about the struggle they are having finding suitable staff. In order to solve this problem, we believe a dedicated resource must be hired to actively pursue ways to bring workers to Whistler and help employers with foreign worker visa applications. We are sourcing ways to fund this position and are hoping to have someone on board in the fall."

The second step in the chamber’s strategy is lobbying. "We have also been actively lobbying the provincial and federal governments to create a single working holiday visa program that will simplify the process and allow successful applicants the ability to work in Canada for no less than two years," said Lundy. "Of course making changes to the Canadian Immigration Act is not an easy venture but we believe we are making progress."

The situation is so clearly perilous to Whistler’s economy that ultimately we may have to travel abroad to execute recruiting strategies. The federal government may have to adopt an immigration policy in which any person offered a legitimate job would be issued a working visa. For now though, we’re going to have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Great expectations

The next cohort of Whistler’s workforce is known as the "Echo Boomers," "Generation Y" or, most commonly, "the Millennium Generation." Their preferred moniker, the Millennium Generation, is an indication that they are going to do things their way. They’re not simply an echo of their parents and they certainly don’t see themselves as an alphabetical extension of Generation X. Born roughly between 1982 and 2002, the oldest are just finishing university and entering the workforce and the youngest can look forward to starting kindergarten next year.

Here’s what to expect from your twenty-something new hires: A clash of cultures. Consider the context of their upbringing. This generation is the most watched-over in history. Think "Baby on Board" bumper stickers. Most millennials have never ridden a bike without a helmet or in a car without a seat belt. They’ve been programmed to have busy schedules that fit around busy parents’ busy work lives. They've been hovered over by what’s known as "helicopter parents." (Some colleges and universities have begun to create new departments and assign full-time staff to deal with parents meddling in their children’s university life.) Some of the protected and polished have been treated as fashion accessories and trophy children. So it’s easy to draw the natural rebellion of youth to its conclusion with a backlash of tattoos and piercings. In school and in their extracurricular activities they have been rewarded for participation, not achievement. In a world where everyone is above average it’s difficult to get a sense of your real skills.

They’ve also been shaped by technology and marketing. They were raised in a time when information takes seconds to circulate thanks to the Internet, mobile phones and video games, which are pervasive in their culture and offer instant success with no real skill.

They are also the first generation to be marketed to directly as children. Recently, a sinister marketing strategy known as "Making children older… younger" has been the tool of choice for unscrupulous businesses that want a piece of the $170 billion a year spent on this generation. For example, when Barbie dolls were first sold in the 1950s, the average age of the target market was 12. Now it’s three.

As a result of this fanatical doting by parents and business, employers can expect the culture clash to play out based on the expectations of their new staff. The Millennium Generation wants their work experience to be participative not exclusive, they expect a lot of feedback on a daily basis, and to have access to and dialogue with, ownership and senior management, and they expect their ideas to be adopted immediately.

Gabriel Draven is a Toronto-based businessman, writer and speaker with an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University. He’s the president of a renewable energy company, Village Technologies. He is known for his work in the environmental community and is the former president of the Green Party of Ontario. He has written about and lectured on the topic of working with the Millennium Generation. He offers some insights on the work ethic of millenials entering the job market.

"First, good staff are going to be good staff no matter what your demographic profile; you will have your top performers and your slackers no matter what. But my sense is that new staff are going to be different, they are not deferential to authority.

"To this generation, work is seen as highly transactional, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you manage it. They also might have an over-inflated estimation of their abilities. You might need to explain that starting at the bottom is not a bad thing."

Draven also explained how the new workforce’s cultural conditioning is going to require an adjustment on both sides in the workplace.

"The people most able to adapt to change, learn and immerse themselves in new experiences are least likely to want to work in traditional arrangements. The irony is that these are the people that businesses need. The best people will have nothing to do with mainstream business."

Draven noted the generational change in perspectives toward work.

"When I graduated from York University with a business degree in the early ’90s the gold standard was to get a job with a major company and the dream was to make it to the executive level. What I’m seeing now is kids saying they don’t want to work at a big company; they want to go into social work, non-profits and social entrepreneurship. Increasingly what I see is that large corporations are not the first but the sixth and seventh choice of new recruits, and more and more big companies are the object of ridicule."

When asked why the Millennium Generation is so skeptical of business, Draven replied: "They’ve grown up with Michael Moore movies and movies like The Corporation. They watched the WTO riots on TV and saw Enron and Tyco executives taken away in handcuffs. They’ve seen the commoditization of labour and therefore see everything as a transaction."

The kids are alright

Non-scientific polling (conducted by your correspondent) during two years of Chamber of Commerce Spirit training, backs up some of what Gabriel is saying. When asked "what is important to me at work" the consistent response from over 300 young workers was: co-workers as friends, flexibility of work schedule, stimulating work, affordable housing, more money, training and benefits, respectful management (that communicates regularly) and recognition.

The most important factor, however, was working at a place they could be proud of, in the quality of its products, services and organization, and it’s reputation.

Whistler’s new recruits may have some naïve notions of what work is really like but concessions will need to be made by employers and managers. The manager’s job is no longer to ensure compliance with the employee manual. The job of the manager is to drive decision making to the lowest levels of the business, to foster empowerment, and build a team. The good news is that this new generation of workers has strengths and a good manager will play to them. These young people have an excellent ability to multi-task, they appreciate schedules and tend to be excellent goal-setters. They are also technologically and media savvy, but far from being arrogant about being "more in the know" about gee-whiz technology and what’s hip, they appreciate mentorship from more experienced managers.

The fact that they insist on face time with top bosses is proof that they are interested. Best of all they enjoy being part of, and thrive in a team environment.

Some of the keys to successfully managing these new recruits are to ask what they want, define their interests, and take advantage of local initiatives to help staff development. Louise Lundy notes that change is afoot with the chamber’s new training programs.

"We plan to introduce a new schedule of courses that reflects our members’ current needs such as How to Hire Temporary Foreign Workers and Preparing for 2010 Opportunities," Lundy said.

She added that the chamber also has programs aimed at improving service in Whistler. The much-needed resort-wide training strategy is just around the corner.

"The chamber will introduce a completely re-vamped Spirit Pass Program this year which will include a resort-wide strategy to improve the customer service experience. Our strategy will include a marketing campaign to get the entire community on board, incentives for employers to buy-in and a fun-filled training program for new and longer-term employees. Stay tuned."

Changing the world

It appears that Whistler realizes an HR shortage of major proportions is upon us, and the good news is that we have a plan and it’s being executed. Smart people are on the job and everything is being done to avert disaster. The crux is what to do with the live bodies once we hire them.

In their book Millennials Rising, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss reveal some significant truths and shatter some established myths about the Millennium Generation. The book conveys the apprehension people feel about this generation – "South Park idiots beyond redemption, the ultimate price for America’s post-’60s narcissism" – but declares that the truth is much more benign.

"Yes, there’s a revolution underway among today’s kids – a good news revolution. " The book surmises that the millennials will rebel by being better, not worse, than the generations that preceded them.

What this means for Whistler is that a paradigm shift is necessary. The local gentry must look in the mirror and accept that it’s time for a strategy to attract and retain talent.

Whistler’s future rests with the twenty something’s that will staff our businesses this winter and the thirty something’s that run them. Our community will always have whiners who sit on the sidelines and complain but the real leaders are the ones who are going to embrace the values of the next generation of hippies that are going to run this place.