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Work wanted

How the tanking economy is hitting home in a big way

Tough times on Easy Street
In a basement suite on Easy Street in Whistler Cay, 23-year-old Nadine Einarson and 19-year-old Rachel Lister breezily joke about their latest drinking adventures and Lister's secret aspirations to get a house cat.

But - on this crispy Thursday afternoon, as the bluebird sun shines hot outside and the whoops and yee-haws of skiers and boarders can almost be heard pouring off the mountaintops in snow culture orgasms - it doesn't take long before their conversation turns stark and serious.

A new reality has taken shape in Whistler. After years of employee shortages, there is now almost no work available.

With solemn faces (not often seen on this town's newly arrived), the girls recount their struggles to score a job - any job - within Whistler's boundaries. Career ads in the local papers have shriveled to a few dozen each week; online job boards are bare; and "Help Wanted" signs, once common in shop windows, have just about disappeared from the village landscape.

"I don't want to be a housekeeper," confides Einarson, who last worked with Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, the Vancouver-based architectural company building the 2010 Celebration Plaza.

"I'm 23, I have a degree and I've never had to do that kind of a job. I've never had to work at a fast food restaurant. But now I'm starting to think that housekeeping would be really sweet."

She sighs.

Einarson and Lister's moods have changed considerably since they first arrived in Whistler two weeks ago, stoked and laughing. Somehow, despite unfavorable odds, they navigated the notorious rental market and snagged an affordable place just a 20-minute walk from the village.

The girls thought they were set up for another perfect winter season. Last year, they were both hired as lifties for Whistler Blackcomb within days of arriving in town. They assumed this year would be the same.

Now, Einarson and Lister are spending their time religiously handing out resumes to local companies and scouring websites for job postings. Occasionally, they cough up $90 for a day pass on Whistler Blackcomb or trek to restaurants and bars for some entertainment.

But the snow conditions are poor, and their bank accounts are draining fast.

Both girls confess if they don't find work soon, they'll pack their bags, say goodbye to Easy Street, and move back home (Vancouver for Einarson, Brisbane for Lister).

"The cost of living here is so high," sighs Lister.

"Even if you have a job, you struggle."

Boom to bust

The job shortage is new to Whistler. Up until November 2008, finding work was almost effortless. The town was revving up for the 2010 Olympics and, in the process, playing host to a construction boom that saw new homes, new facilities and state-of-the-art buildings popping up almost monthly.

High wages and low qualifications at construction sites lured some of Whistler's long-time chefs and retail workers away from the village. Carpenters and welders from around B.C. - and Canada - were also moving into Whistler apartments and taking high-paying jobs.

With the ever-soaring demand for more bodies to work more construction projects, the already tight rental market was in a virtual chokehold. Finding housing, not work, was the rite of passage to a mountain resort life.

On top of that, Whistler had just experienced two good snow winters and the global economy was sturdy. Travellers from around the world were journeying to the future Olympic resort to spend dollars, and local companies couldn't keep up with the demand for services. Businesses were hiring employees at every opportunity and praying that at least a few would stay until the end of the ski season - officially June, unofficially the last weekend of the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival in April.

Front-line staff often joked: "Don't show up to work if you don't want to. You can always find a job somewhere else."

Then, in September, the U.S. subprime mortgage market hit a critical stage when the housing bubble burst, sending large finance companies and funds to the brink of bankruptcy. Soon after, the world economy began to tank. By October, the situation continued to worsen with a series of stock market crashes that drew comparisons to 1930. And as the aftermath unraveled in November, many economists forecasted the global recession would persist for at least another year, if not longer.

Layoffs around the world followed as companies downsized, and consumer demand for new homes, products and services dwindled.

Unusual local weather mixed with this instable world economy meant bad news for Whistler. Fewer visitors skied here than previous years as Ullr - the Nordic god of snow and unofficial Whistler mascot - failed to deliver his usual blanket of Coast Mountain powder. Worse, the snow pack is volatile. To date, there have been 16 avalanche fatalities in B.C. this winter.

While it is not yet clear how these factors will impact the 2008-2009 winter season, Tourism Whistler has forecast a 15 to 20 per cent decline in tourist visits through the end of the season.

Local businesses, uncertain about how to plan for the next few months, are looking hard at their staffing levels. Many have frozen hiring or are cutting back staff hours. Some have made layoffs.

The number of job ads (and jobs) in town has plummeted about 80 per cent compared to last year. On January 28, 2008, businesses posted 140 job ads in Pique Newsmagazine. In November, that number dropped to 80. And last week, there were only 26. (See graph for more detail.)

"People are very focused on the season, and they are not quite sure where it is going to go," summed up Fiona Famulak, president of the Chamber of Commerce, from her office overlooking Whistler's taxi bus loop and Greyhound bus stop.

"Until that uncertainty goes away, people are not sure how to plan, and that includes how to plan for staff."

Layoffs for pay offs?

Over the clank of silverware, pots and pans, Erin Kincaid confides the Bear Foot Bistro was planning on having a great winter season leading up to the Olympics, especially since their star chef Melissa Craig won the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship in 2008.

But the tough times in Whistler forced them to cut back, says Kincaid, and the up-scale restaurant shed 11 jobs this season.

"They were mainly front of house staff, like food runners, hosts, servers, and dishwashers," explains Kincaid.

"Our main idea was to try and look after people who have been with us for a long time and make sure they got the shifts and could pay the bills. But it is still a struggle."

Other businesses in Whistler are also letting go of temporary staff, as well as key managerial positions.

The most public spat of layoffs happened in late November when Intrawest cut back jobs across North America, including at Whistler Blackcomb. Since then, though, WB has adopted a strong policy of holding on to its staff but not always replacing those who leave.

"We have been struggling to give people full time hours, so as a result, any jobs that are posted go to those internal people first," explains Karen Bauckham, WB's recruiting manager

"For example, snowmakers, who we typically lay off at this time of year, are coming forward and applying for other positions."

At the same time, "temporary layoffs" or cutbacks in hours have been common at WB, and year-round staff are getting an extra week of paid holiday as well as an extra week of unpaid holiday to "try and spread the situation as opposed to imposing it on a few people," adds Brian Good, manager of employee experience at WB.

Meanwhile, rumours about lay offs at other companies are spreading through town like Chinese whispers:

"The Four Seasons is letting go."

"So is the Fairmont."

"I heard the Hilton is laying off people too."

Is there truth in the gossip? Last week Samantha Greer, public relations director for the Four Seasons in Whistler and Vancouver, said her hotel underwent an "adjustment" and has temporarily reduced the workforce's hours for January and February.
The Fairmont laid off 20 people this season, according to general manager Roger Soane.
And Jennifer Morrison, public relations and communications manager for the Hilton, refused to comment on staffing changes at her hotel.

"I think obviously there are a lot of changes that are going on resort-wide, but obviously we are doing our best to make sure our staff are as well taken care of as they could possibly be," says Morrison.

Not all businesses have felt the financial pinch enough to cut staff.

The owner of Sundial Boutique Hotel confirms his company has not laid off a single person.

"We have streamlined operations," explains David Demers, adding: "We are re-evaluating on a weekly basis how we are doing business."

Sandy Black, owner of the largest group of independent rental shops in Whistler, Affinity Sports, also says his company has not changed staffing levels.

"We are just cooking along, watching our hours of operation, and not having to lay off staff."

And Steve Turner, owner of the mechanical shop Local Automotive in Function Junction, says in some ways the job shortage is a blessing because he no longer has trouble finding staff.

"Up to about five months ago it was almost impossible to find someone, but now it has totally changed," says Turner candidly. Now he gets resumes from across Canada and B.C.

"I've got excess now," he says.

But the job situation has far reaching consequences for Whistler, and Turner was quick to point out the flipside to his good fortune.

"It is going to hurt everybody eventually because if they (employees) don't make money, they don't spend money."

The devil in the details

What the job shortage ultimately means for Whistler is anyone's guess. At the least, like Turner says, less money will be spent locally by "locals," however you define the word. At the most it could mean an exodus of seasonal workers who aren't willing to stick around without a job - and that could spell trouble in 12 months when the Winter Olympics arrive on Whistler's doorstep along with thousands of spectators.

Already, it appears some people are beginning to shuffle out of town.

According to Diane Foster, owner of Uniglobe Advanced Travel, her office has seen a huge rise this winter in the number of people leaving Whistler earlier then originally planned.

"We have been extremely busy changing the return tickets of people who had come for the season - and also booking new tickets - for people who are leaving early," comments an astonished Foster.

"We've never had so many changes of tickets. Ever."

A lot of the ticket changes have been for Australians and New Zealanders who planned to go to Europe after the winter season but now want to go earlier, explains Foster, adding that many European travellers also want to head east soon.

"Basically what everyone has been saying in town is their hours are being cut back and there is really bad skiing and no snow. There is no reason to be here, and financially they can't afford to stay," she confides.

While there are no hard statistics, the amount of unemployed people in town is also likely rising. Anecdotally, Greg McDonnell from Whistler Community Services Society says his programs have seen high use this winter, including the food bank, peer educators, and outreach workers.

The number of people on employment insurance in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) - as of October this year - has also gone up 14 per cent since last year, according to Statistics Canada. But this trend was also seen between 2006 and 2007, so the E.I. stats may not be directly tied to the economy.

How long the job shortage lasts is also up in the air.

The situation could easily do a 180 as Games-time approaches. While most businesses have not yet finalized their plans during the Winter Olympics, they will likely want more workers for the busy time. Plus, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and other Olympic-related groups may hire locally and reduce the number of employees available to businesses.

At the same time, no one knows how many Olympic spectators will infiltrate the village during 2010. Many businesses are questioning how busy they will actually be and have not yet made concrete plans for staffing.

"I think the Olympics will alleviate this. Logically, it seems like they must. If we are going to be dealing with thousands of visitors, then we need an employee base in
Whistler to service those thousands of visitors," reasons Famulak.

Famulak adds that the chamber is busy looking at ways to encourage more workers to move to Whistler.

They are lobbying the federal government to extend the working holiday visa for people from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Korea. (Last year Australian working holiday visas were elongated to two years.)

They are also pushing the government to make it easier for people to transfer specific job qualifications across Canadian provinces, like early childhood educators.

And they plan to start using Facebook and other social networking websites to advertise Whistler as a great place to live, work and play.

"When our businesses get to the point where they are actively planning for 2010, they might be asking themselves, 'Where are these people going to come from?' Hopefully this will create a supply that will help to address the needs when we are in a better position to identify what those needs are," says Famulak.

The next 12 months

As Einarson, Lister and other unemployed workers continue their job hunt; as Bear Foot, the Four Seasons and other businesses balance staffing levels with lower revenues; and as everyone in Whistler tries to grasp the new job shortage, several large questions hang in the air.

How many seasonal workers will leave Whistler unsatisfied this winter? How will they describe their experience to friends in England, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere? Will the unemployed or underemployed who remain in Whistler spend less money locally?

How will businesses meet the challenges of the next 12 months? Will many continue to lay off staff? Will any of them go out of business in these tough economic times?

And could there actually be a labour shortage next winter, even if the poor economy continues? Will Olympic-related companies like NBC, CTV and Coca Cola hire locally for temporary jobs? Will Olympic spectators wander into Whistler Village during February and March 2010 or will they board buses and go back to Vancouver after watching events?

Only time will tell what the future holds. Until then, many people are looking at the silver lining. They are optimistic, but frank, about the year ahead.

"It has been good to see everyone getting together to try and make this a better winter than usual under the circumstances," says Demers from Sundial.

"We are lucky to have the Olympics... It would be even deader now if we didn't have the Olympics," says Turner from Local Automotive.

And Good from Whistler Blackcomb ends: "Our biggest sales tool, I still think, is word of mouth and how people are treated."