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Pique’s labour look-in

A Labour Day examination of the many pressure points exacerbating Whistler’s—and B.C.’s— labour shortage

As a general rule, Whistler business owners are a fairly adaptable bunch. 

It’s the simple reality of operating in a resort town, what with its seasonal ebbs and flows, persistent staffing shortages, and the steep cost of doing business that comes with setting up shop in one of the most expensive communities in the country.

With all that in mind, Whistler’s business sector had fully steeled itself this spring for what was predicted to be an exceptionally busy summer, as travel began to open up and the public was eager to get out and about after more than two years of COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions.

“What we saw was a great group of owners, operators, general managers that made decisions that needed to be made to do the best we could with the guest experience, given the staffing we have,” says entrepreneur Diana Chan, board chair of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. “We were as well-equipped as we knew we were going to be heading into the summer. We anticipated the challenges that we’re having.” 

Many of those challenges should ring familiar to anyone who has followed the resort’s labour landscape over the years—except with the dial turned up to 11. Whistler continues to see the return of its seasonal, international workforce coming out of the pandemic, but with Canada’s immigration stream still clogged by a backlog of applications, that return has been more of a trickle than a deluge. 

“We started working on this back in April around helping businesses access information now that the government has opened up the visas,” Chan notes. “But with the lead times, the processing times, how do we help businesses access the labour they need for the winter? We have to get ahead of these cycles.”  

Then, fuelled by the pandemic, there’s an ongoing reckoning so many are having with their relationship to work. We’ve already seen the steady shift to a remote-work environment, and those that still clock in at their place of employment are rethinking what they get out of a job that goes beyond a paycheque, something resort employers have long been cognizant of, offering an array of perks—from staff housing to ski passes—to help attract and retain long-term staff. 

But 2022 has come with its fair share of surprises, even for the savvy resort business owners that have come to expect the unexpected. Between a four-month transit strike that hit Whistler’s front-line workers the hardest, historic supply-chain issues only exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, just in the past two weeks, a strike of roughly 33,000 BC General Employees’ Union members dealing yet another blow to an already battered hospitality sector (see related story on page 31), it has been a flurry of factors largely out of the hands of the business community. 

“With the strike, it’s one of those unfortunate [situations] where it’s having a very significant impact on food and beverage, without any control,” says Chan, referencing how the job action has targeted BC Liquor Distribution Branches, stifling the supply of alcohol to restaurants and hotels. “There is little influence other than the advocacy efforts that are happening across multiple associations on the government to do something about this.” 

Though the BCGEU announced an end to targeted strike action at liquor distribution warehouses on Aug. 30 as the parties return to bargaining, the disruption forced  business owners both in Whistler and beyond to consider ways to strengthen their supply chains locally to make them more resilient to external forces. 

“I don’t believe this problem is going away. We talk about labour within Whistler. This is not a Whistler-only problem. This is something all communities are experiencing. The supply chain is reliant not just on the manufacturers, the shipping getting it into the country, but we’re also going to start seeing the impact of getting supplies into the Sea to Sky, because of availability of truck drivers. That’s something we’re keeping our eye on,” says Chan, who lauded the Sea to Sky’s farmers for stepping up this summer to supply kitchens across the corridor.

“We’re trying to keep an eye and understand these things, but those are the ones where, without the control or ability to stop it, we’re looking at leaders who are getting very creative. We talk about resiliency, adaptability, creativity, and we’re seeing that from all levels of management and leadership across the resort.” 

The Chamber is getting creative in its own ways to help its members weather the storm. A newly drafted Community Talent Plan is just weeks away from being rolled out to the resort, representing a shift in how Whistler approaches labour as a whole, Chan posits. 

“We are looking at how the Chamber, along with other partnerships, can be a bit more of the driver of bringing talent to Whistler, providing development opportunities and then helping employers retain those employees for a longer period of time,” she explains. “I think it’s a new way to approach looking at labour within Whistler, rather than try the things we’ve always tried.”
The Chamber also intends to take on more of an advocacy role heading into this October’s municipal election. Using research gleaned from the Community Talent Plan, as well as results of a recent survey of local businesses, the Chamber will send each election candidate an information packet designed to help them “understand the true issues” facing Whistler’s workforce, primarily around housing and unaffordability, “and the influence they have primarily at the community retention level,” Chan says. 

“You could have the best employer, but as we know, Whistler has affordability issues, so how are we addressing those? Because even the best employer can’t necessarily retain employees in an unaffordable community.” 

Chan pointed to the push to support locally owned businesses that gained steam during the pandemic as an example of how the Chamber can help drive a deeper understanding of the issues Whistler’s business sector is contending with. 

“It’s more than just shopping local,” she says. “It is really about people understanding the importance of employee housing to stable, dignified living for employees that work here in Whistler and drive the economy.” 

The Chamber, Pique Newsmagazine and Arts Whistler are co-hosting an all-candidates meeting on Sept. 28 at the Maury Young Arts Centre, before Whistlerites head to the polls on Oct. 15. 

The Chamber also continues its search for its new executive director, after Melissa Pace announced in April she was stepping down from the position she had served in since 2017. 

The Great Resignation comes to Canada

By Nelson Bennett / Business in Vancouver  

Tens of thousands of Canadians were able to celebrate Labour Day this year by not setting their alarm clocks.

They didn’t need to get up early the next day because they are now retired.

In July, Statistics Canada reported that 300,000 Canadians had retired in the previous 12 months—a 30-per-cent increase from the same period the year prior.

The retirement wave was part of the Great Resignation that had been expected during the pandemic, but came about a year later than expected. 

That large number of retirements in a single year, coupled with a sharp drop in immigration in 2020, is putting an intense squeeze on the Canadian labour market. From emergency room physicians and nurses to delivery drivers, there simply aren’t enough skilled workers right now.

“The big, big difference between where we are today and 2019, for instance, is that immigration was cut over the last two years, and that’s had a significant impact on the supply of workers,” says Pedro Antunes, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada.

While Canada registered more than 400,000 immigrants in 2021, the numbers can be misleading, because a lot of those new immigrants were already in the country as students or temporary foreign workers.

“People who are already in Canada, we are converting them from non-permanent resident to immigrant,” Antunes says. “That changes nothing in terms of the pool of workers.”

While a recession might ease the labour shortage temporarily, the draining of the pool of working-aged Canadians is a long-term trend that promises to get worse, warns RBC Economics.

Between 2016 and 2021, the number of Canadians aged 65 and older was around 7 million—18 per cent of the Canadian population—according to Statistics Canada, and 22 per cent of working-age Canadians are now between the ages of 55 to 64.

In other words, one-fifth of working-age Canadians are set to retire over the next decade, and Canada’s birth rate has not been high enough to fill that vacuum. 

“The tail-end of the baby boom is at its peak right now,” Antunes says. “The problem is right now. Over the next five or six years, we’re going to see these folks really leave a gap as they leave the workforce.”

In resource sectors, companies have been investing in skills training for First Nations with some success. While the employment rate for Indigenous Canadians has improved slightly over the last 10 years, First Nations represent a potential human resources pool that is still largely untapped.

Another demographic that employers may need to start tapping is seniors.

With baby boomers living longer than previous generations (an average of nine years longer than North Americans in 1921), many boomers could continue working well past 65—provided they want to, and provided there are incentives to do so.

Helen Spence, founder of Top Sixty Over Sixty, does consulting for older workers who want to continue working or re-enter the workforce. She said many Canadians who reach 65 look forward to having a break from work.

But after they have had a year or two of full retirement, many retirees are willing and able to go back to work, at least part-time. Others might simply want to slow down a bit.

“There are many people who’d be perfectly happy to stay in their company or in their business and have reduced time, and not be paid as much,” Spence says.

Not all employers recognize the value of older, experienced workers, however, and still prefer younger ones in their recruiting. It’s a mindset Spence says employers might need to rethink, as the labour pool continues to shrink.

“I think they think that everybody’s replaceable,” Spence says. “But there’s a ton of corporate and institutional memory that walks out the door every time somebody retires.”

From her experience, Spence said whether an employee decides to continue working after 65 or not “has everything to do with who the employer is and what the flexibility issues are.”

Despite their skills and experience, older workers can often find it difficult to find a job, she says.

“It takes two years for an older person to find a job, for the most part, and it’s much more difficult for women than it is for men,” Spence says.

While there may still be a bias against older workers among some managers, others appear to be willing to tap this growing human resources pool.

“Retirees are returning to the workforce,” says Mike Shekhtman, regional director for Robert Half recruitment agency.

In a recent survey, Robert Half interviewed 900 senior managers across Canada.

“In the last 12 months, 46 per cent of those managers have on-boarded employees who had previously retired and returned to the workforce,” Shekhtman says. “It was incredible to see that amount of people that are coming back.”

Of those retirees who returned to work, 50 per cent came back full-time; the rest came back either part-time or as consultants and mentors.

As for whether retirees even want to come out of retirement, some may find they have no choice, when they find their pensions and savings just don’t cover their living expenses.

“I think, if they had their druthers, they would only work part-time,” Spence says. “But I think a lot of people are working full-time because look at inflation. People are running out of money faster than they thought.”

One barrier to seniors working part-time is health benefits, which increase in importance as people get older. 

“We’re encouraging organizations to offer benefits to their part-time workforce to help retain retirees because a lot of organizations do not offer their benefits to part-time workers,” says Lauren Florko, associate director of human capital for the Conference Board of Canada.

“Typically what people want, in aging, what they want in their benefits is typically what’s not covered.”

Inflation plus full employment equals wage pressures

Call it the inflation feedback loop. Rapidly rising prices for consumer goods invariably put pressure on employers to hike wages, which adds to the inflation cycle.

This pressure isn’t as intense when unemployment is high, but in a tight labour market, it’s inevitable. And the current labour market is tight as a drum.

In July, Canada’s unemployment rate was just 4.9 per cent, while B.C.’s was 4.7 per cent.

In B.C., for business, finance and administrative positions, the unemployment rate is just two per cent, says Mike Shekhtman, regional director for Robert Half recruitment agency.

“So we’re looking at full employment for many specialized positions,” he says. “Over the past 18 months, we saw such an acceleration coming out of the pandemic across multiple industries, when we saw unemployment reaching all-time lows.”

According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, employers were looking to fill 1 million job vacancies this summer. The result is predictable.

“Wage pressures are building—they accelerated to 5.2 per cent year over year in June, up notably from 3.9 per cent a month earlier,” the chamber says. 

“This will only add to broader cost pressures for Canadian businesses, and the numbers will likely keep rising in the context of even higher inflation. This will make things particularly tricky for small and medium-sized businesses who are already facing significant hiring challenges.”

Canadians are already starting to see labour strife, as unions demand wage increases commensurate with inflation. 

In mid-August, for example, the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) began job action, after rejecting an offer of an 11-per-cent pay increase over three years, plus a $2,500 bonus per worker. The BCGEU says the Public Service Agency failed to meet union demands for cost of living provisions to address inflation.

Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, hoping to tame inflation with rising bank rates, and fearful of accelerating inflation, recently urged employers to refrain from hiking wages, to the great ire of unionized labour.

Michael Scott, vice-president of Impact Recruitment’s building division, which works with real estate developers, builders and building managers, says there are labour shortages “right across the board” in every area.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened an already tightening labour market. Some workers took advantage of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to stop working altogether for a time. 

Many who re-entered the workforce had new demands, like the option to work remotely, according to recent Impact Recruitment polling.

“We did a recent one,” Scott says. “The results were 24 per cent of the candidates consider, now, flexibility and remote working opportunities to be the most important benefit that they can get from their new employer. 

One particularly “hot” space where demand far exceeds supply of workers is digital marketing, Shekhtman says. 

And despite recent headlines about high-tech companies like Hootsuite laying off employees, programmers, engineers, data analysts and other high-tech workers are still very much in demand, Shekhtman says.

In a recent survey, Robert Half found only two per cent of tech company managers planned to eliminate positions this year, while 40 per cent said they would be hiring new employees, and 50 per cent said they’d be filling vacant positions.

Job recruiters are also seeing more employers willing to hire outside their immediate geographic region.

“For us, a silver lining of the pandemic is that companies have realized that, for a segment of the market, some positions can be done remotely,” Shekhtman says.

In such a competitive labour market, many employers feel pressure to offer higher wages and salaries. But that can create real problems in an organization. Paying a new employee the same, or more, as someone who has been with the organization for years is a recipe for discontent.

“There’s a challenge for many organizations, where they’re very much concerned about internal equity,” Shekhtman says. “So maybe the base salary is not something that they can have a lot of flexibility with.”

Some employers are trying to avoid this problem this by offering signing bonuses, rather than higher base wages. Of the managers recently surveyed, Robert Half found 31 per cent are offering some form of bonus. Some also offer perks, like free parking or gym memberships. 

Big Numbers

300,000: The number of Canadians who have retired in the 12 months previous to July

30%: Percentage increase of retired Canadians compared with the same period the year prior

18%: Percentage of the Canadian population aged 65 and older

22%: Percentage of working age Canadians who are now between the ages of 55 to 64

2%: Percentage of tech company managers planning to eliminate positions this year, according to a recent Robert Half survey

40%: Percentage of tech company managers planning to hire new employees, according to the survey

50%:  Percentage of tech company managers who said they’d be filling vacant positions this year