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Labour’s perfect storm

At the end of a short week that began with Labour Day, Immigration Minister Monte Solberg is to meet with Whistler business people to hear their concerns about staffing and how his ministry may be able to help alleviate an aspect of the local labour

At the end of a short week that began with Labour Day, Immigration Minister Monte Solberg is to meet with Whistler business people to hear their concerns about staffing and how his ministry may be able to help alleviate an aspect of the local labour shortage.

What the minister will come to understand is that Whistler has found itself in the middle of the perfect labour storm. We are not the only ones facing this storm — the retiring baby boomers, the construction frenzy in southwest B.C., the oil boom in northern Alberta — but there are a few wrinkles that have magnified its impact on Whistler. For one, there is unprecedented resort development across B.C. today, which means people interested in living in the mountains have more choices than ever before. There’s also the fact that no new affordable housing has been produced in Whistler in more than three years. It’s a storm that we didn’t prepare for as well as we could have.

That’s the labour forecast for Whistler that will be laid out for Solberg. There is no easy, immediate solution. To some extent we are going to have to ride out this storm.

What the chamber of commerce and local businesses are hoping the minister will do is extend the working visa program from one year to two, to allow the hundreds of foreign workers who fill jobs in Whistler an extra year here, if they want it. It’s not the answer to all our labour needs by any means, but we’re hoping the minister will understand the gravity of the situation.

And there are reasons to feel optimistic. Minister Solberg, who represents the Alberta riding of Medicine Hat, is familiar with the giant labour vacuum that the northern Alberta oil patch has become, offering $100,000 a year wages to 20 year olds with drivers licences. There is also evidence to suggest that Solberg is prepared to act. He has already announced the creation of temporary foreign worker units in Calgary and Vancouver to facilitate the entry of temporary foreign workers and he has launched off-campus work permits for international students studying in Canada.

And while labour is a real issue, politics are also involved. Solberg’s Conservative Party want desperately to reclaim the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky riding in the next election, which may explain the minister’s appearance in Whistler Friday.

But the labour issue can’t be resolved through foreign workers alone. The chamber of commerce is correct to focus on this one aspect that may be addressed relatively quickly, but the labour shortage is a bigger and more complex issue facing many communities. The anecdotal evidence is visible as you pass businesses with semi-permanent “now hiring” signs. The first day of Walmart’s week-long job fair in Squamish apparently didn’t see one prospective employee drop in. In Whistler, some business owners are considering closing mid-day during the winter to compensate for lack of staff. Others may just remain closed.

Some are suggesting this is karma catching up to Whistler; that low wages in the service industry have led to the worker shortage. The solution, in some minds, is simple: pay employees more.

But, to borrow a phrase, it’s not that simple. Certainly there are generous employers and not-as-generous employers, but a cursory examination of the business landscape in Whistler shows that for many businesses there are perhaps five months of the year that are profitable. Most of these same businesses have overhead costs 12 months of the year.

And one of the largest overhead costs for most businesses is rent. Just as there are generous employers and not-as-generous employers, there are generous landlords and not-as-generous landlords. Both have to pay property taxes.

All of these things factor into wages.

Whistler is a town that was built by small businesses, particularly in the beginning when big business didn’t believe in the plan and refused to invest. As the town has grown the opportunities for small businesses have evolved, with entrepreneurs adding to the mix of activities and services now available in Whistler. Maintaining this mix of small, independent businesses is critical to maintaining Whistler’s identity. And obviously labour is a key to making it work.

The fear is that labour issues could become so trying over the next few years that small business owners will become fed up and leave. And at this point in Whistler’s history small businesses are most likely to be swallowed by larger businesses.

Labour’s perfect storm may have a significant impact in re-shaping the character of Whistler over the next few years. The loss of employees and small business employers could drastically change the nature of this town. Solberg can provide a lifejacket, but Whistler may need more than that to get through the storm.