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Businesses need help to secure workers

This time of year is always a busy one for the resort.
photo from shutterstock

This time of year is always a busy one for the resort.

Weekends are at or near capacity for everyone, the highway is bumper-to-bumper Thursday through Sunday and workers are turning to Red Bull as they burn the candle at both ends riding and earning their paycheques.

But back in the day, there was a kind of "we-are-in-this-together" feeling, and besides, we knew that just a few short months away we would all get some much-deserved downtime.

These days, however, it feels like there is no downtime, and if social media commentary is anything to go by, we are in a snarky mood. One can hardly post a comment without being roasted. Facebook is becoming one of the most negative forums around.

Being busy has its downsides, for sure, but you won't find me complaining (I remember the doldrum years). However, that does not mean our community can stand by while our quality of life is adversely impacted.

Whistler is a destination resort and we want and need it to be busy, and we are excited to welcome all our visitors from near and far.

But those 500,000 extra visitors (we are now up to 3.2-million visitors a year) are really stretching us. This in turn has created more jobs. We have gone from 12,200 full-time equivalent jobs in 2013 to 16,300, driving growth in the local, permanent population in excess of 20 per cent to nearly 12,000 residents.

This in turn has created the housing shortage we all know about and live with.

But here is the elephant in the room—we still need more workers. You don't even want to say that out loud when faced with the housing crunch, but many businesses are suffering, as is some customer service due to lack of staff.

And we are not alone.

This week, in a message to its members, the chair of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, Alroy Chan, lamented the shortage of workers and raised concerns over the changes the federal government is making to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFW).

"The federal government recently announced some proposed changes to the TFW program that are concerning to us," he wrote. "Most notably, the changes would allow workers to freely move from one employer to another for any reason, at any time.

"This effectively renders the TFW program moot—why would an operator spend months (not to mention thousands of dollars) bringing an employee into the country if they cannot guarantee a certain level of commitment from said employee?"

B.C.'s tourism industry is projected to create 106,000 new job openings in a range of careers over the next decade.

B.C. tourism is projected to need 12,500 professional cooks and chefs; 11,500 food counter attendants and kitchen helpers; 8,100 food and beverage servers; 7,600 restaurant and food service managers—and that is just one sector.

It's all well and good to address the challenges in the TFW program but perhaps a way forward would be to hold the businesses that use it more accountable through enforcement rather than sweeping changes that capture the nurturing businesses as well, making the system to expensive and difficult to use.

It's not clear how many TFWs there are in Whistler right now, but it is an avenue open to those looking to hire multiple staff. In some cases, businesses are being advised by recruiters that while they might find one Canadian for a skilled job they are unlikely to find two, and so using the TFW program becomes part of the search for employees.

Said Chan: "It's my view that the proposed changes will only further exacerbate the labour troubles that are plaguing the tourism industry in this country.

"This would mean millions of foregone business, taxes and opportunities that would drastically hurt our local economies. We're hopeful that the government will hear our concerns loud and clear, and that they will reconsider these proposed changes."

Canada's historic low unemployment levels are impacting many sectors. Veronique Simard, a spokeswoman for Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, told the Canadian Press last month: "While this economic success is good for business, it is also creating challenges for employers who are struggling to find enough workers to meet demand.

"The temporary-foreign-worker program continues to experience an increased volume of labour market impact assessment applications across Canada."

Indeed, the volume of applications is up almost 25 per cent over last year with the wait for approval over 100 days for the low-skill stream and 85 days for the high-wage stream.

The federal government needs to step up its game in helping businesses secure labour from creating a "trusted business" status for applicants for TFW to considering exemptions for destination resorts such as Whistler.

The federal government has been vocal about growing tourism—it wants to see a 25-per-cent increase in tourism revenues to $128 billion by 2025—but its goal will be unattainable without staff on the frontlines.