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Apply here: Whistler is booming, but businesses struggle to keep up

Most businesses agree there is a labour shortage, but how to solve it is up for debate
Southside Diner Owner Les Ecker (centre) flanked by waitress Robyn Martin and chef Charles Cadrin. Ecker said this summer has been the toughest he has seen for trying to hire staff to keep up with demand. Photo BY Jennifer Thuncher

Help signs decorate business windows, online job boards are filled with posts and the back pages of the newspapers are stocked with ads for positions from servers to construction workers — and everything in between.

Whistler employers, across almost all sectors, are in the midst of what some say is the worst labour shortage they have seen in years.

At the Southside Diner, owner Les Ecker has been looking to hire a line cook and dishwasher, but to no avail.

"We just had our 10th anniversary and we have gone through times when it has been hard to get staff before, but this has probably been the worst," Ecker said.

He said even though he has placed ads everywhere he can, he is getting few applicants, and it has been that way for several months.

As a result of the shortage, the diner has been forced to close weeknights Monday to Thursday indefinitely. It isn't the only one. A stroll through the village shows several restaurants operating with areas closed off because there isn't enough staff to cover the whole floor.

Ecker isn't sure exactly what is causing the shortage, but he said the resort definitely seems busier this summer, which compounds the problem.

"It is kind of a big circular problem. We are busy, we don't have staff, people feel overworked and unhappy and then it just makes being busy seem busier — it just keeps going around and around," he said.

Bruce Stewart, Nesters Market manager, has been with the store for 17 years and agrees this summer is busier.

"There are events almost every single weekend. They aren't small events, they are big events," he said.

Stewart's store typically employs 110 staff in the busier seasons, and is currently looking to hire another eight to 10 more.

"We are very successful... but we are not keeping up staff wise," Stewart said.

Chief economist and vice president of the Business Council of British Columbia, Ken Peacock, said the council is seeing some similar shortages to Whistler's, regionally.

"Our sense is province-wide, in the large urban areas, we don't have this crunch, but some of our big resorts around the province struggle with this in both the winter and the summer months, particularly with the tourism in the summer months," he said.

According to Peacock, part of the issue is tourism in B.C. seems to be up.

Factors contributing to the increase include more Asian visitors and a fairly pronounced recovery in tourists from the United States coming up, thanks to their improved economy and a more favourable exchange rate.

Joey Gibbons, of The Gibbons Hospitality Group, which has been around since it opened its first pub in the village in 1975, said to keep up with the demand, businesses have to step up and make jobs worth having.

The company operates five pubs in Whistler including Tapley's Pub and Garfinkel's and is currently hiring, but Gibbons said it is just pure supply and demand.

"It is the same thing that happens every time when more people start coming to Whistler — it shifts from being an employers market to an employees market," he said, adding two years ago his managers had more resumés than they knew what to do with and now it is more difficult to find good people. "This is where, as a community, we have to come together and make Whistler the best place for these young people to come and work."

One of the things about his company is that entry-level people who stick it out eventually will move up to senior positions and be able to afford to buy homes in Whistler and stay.

"So people who want to be here see that. They see what their peers are doing and they want to stick around and be apart of that," he said.

But many business leaders in the village don't echo Gibbons assertion that employers just need to try harder.

Evidence that there may be something bigger going on is reflected in the fact the shortage is being felt in sectors that usually have little problem attracting workers.

Jamie Weatherbie, project manager of EVR Fine Homes, said the shortage is almost as bad as during the two final years before the 2010 Winter Olympics. Workers at his company make up to $32 an hour, depending on the position.

By working full out, the company is meeting customer demand with its current 40 employees, but they are looking to hire for five more positions, including carpenters, carpenters-apprentices and labourers.

"Usually hiring the other seven months of the year isn't a problem, the problem for us is building in Whistler has really taken off here this summer so most companies are relatively busy and many of the skilled trades people have gone into Alberta in search of [even] higher wage work and overtime," he told the Pique by email.

Val Litwin, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Gibbons that employers have to use every tool in their kit to attract workers, but even still, like Weatherbie, many members of the chamber are telling him no matter what they do, it isn't enough.

"We are probably having one of the best summers on record. But the issue is we can't run at capacity," Litwin said.

He said he knows of one business that has upped its wage rate for cashiers by $4 an hour.

"These are jobs that are $15, maybe $16 an hour but he is now willing to pay $20 per hour," he said.

One of the answers, Litwin and other Whistler businesses point to is opening up the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

Under the program, businesses in places where the unemployment rate is six per cent or more cannot access certain low wage positions through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Litwin pointed out Whistler's 2013 unemployment rate was two per cent, according to the Resort Municipality of Whistler's Community Life tracking survey, but the rate for the area Whistler is counted in to qualify for the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, the mainland southwest region, is closer to six per cent.

He is working with the B.C. Chamber and lobbying the provincial government to get behind Whistler's policy recommendations around regional exceptions. He said he is meeting with local MP John Weston in a few weeks to see if there has been any movement federally.

Team Clean Whistler is one of the businesses whose owner agrees the program needs to allow Whistler to access temporary foreign workers.

"(I am having) my first day off in three months because I cannot find staff and have to do the work myself," said president Jannie Grobler. "There are quite simply not enough Canadians in B.C. to fill the demand."