Editorial 

Labour issues go well beyond 2010

All this month, transit riders who pass through Toronto’s Union Station and Montreal’s Berri-UQAM station are being inundated with invitations to come and work in British Columbia.

The two transit stations, we’re told, have been transformed into post cards of B.C. Interior walls, floors, railings, turnstiles and fare booths are festooned with images of our province. “Your dream job is here” is the campaign message. A website, canadaspacificgateway.ca, provides details about why and how Torontonians and Montrealers should make the move to B.C.

The unemployment rate in B.C. in January was 4.1 per cent, the lowest it’s been in 30 years. But Alberta’s unemployment rate was 3.2, Saskatchewan’s 3.9 and Manitoba’s 3.8. In Ontario, the January rate was 6.3 per cent. In Quebec it was 6.8 per cent.

A press release this month from the Minister of Economic Development, Colin Hansen, stated that B.C. will have an estimated 1 million job openings over the next 10 years, while there are only 650,000 people currently in B.C.’s K-12 school system. The balance, according to Hansen, who spoke at the Whistler Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, must be made up by workers from outside the province.

Whistler businesses don’t need any reminders about the shortage of workers, and the competition for them. Two summers ago, at least one Whistler restaurant was closed an extra night a week because it couldn’t find qualified people to work in the kitchen — many of them were working in construction for the summer, making a little more money, working outdoors. They went back to the kitchen in the winter, when the construction had wound down, skiing and snowboarding were underway and evening shifts at the restaurant meant days free to ride.

Will a Toronto subway rider help a Whistler restaurateur maintain his normal operating hours this summer? Whistler has long been a desirable place to live for anyone interested in the mountains. But there are now several other, less expensive mountain towns in Western Canada offering many of the same qualities of life.

Temporary foreign workers have been a part of the equation for mountain resort towns across North America for years. Australians have been filling jobs at ski areas in B.C., Alberta and Colorado, and the number of Brits working in Whistler has increased substantially in recent years. Vail was recruiting bus drivers in Puerto Rico recently.

But now the whole B.C. tourism industry is finding out about foreign workers. John Leschyson, human resources director for Go2 Tourism HR Society, told B.C. Business magazine temporary foreign workers were unheard of in the industry two years ago. Since then, B.C. hotel, restaurant and resort owners have filed close to 3,000 labour market opinion requests. LMOs are the time-consuming federal requirement for businesses to disprove a negative: that a Canadian could not be found to do the job.

For Whistler, this year brings another twist. Just as British Columbia is advertising for employees in Toronto and Montreal, resorts in Muskoka and on Vancouver Island are advertising in Whistler, recruiting summer employees.

Affordable housing has always been a part of the employee equation in Whistler. The general feeling right now is if we can just get through the next two winters, following the Olympics there will be plenty of housing. But finding affordable accommodation in the summer is not as easy as it once was, due to the boom in construction and Whistler’s growing popularity as a summer resort.

While Whistler — primarily through the chamber of commerce — is working on finding more affordable accommodation to cover the next two years, demographics and fierce competition show the resort community also can’t afford to relax efforts to recruit workers. A labour shortage is going to be a North American problem for the next couple of decades. This generation of employees can pick and choose their jobs and have no problem leaving a job because there is always another one available.

The federal government showed signs it was listening when it introduced the Expedited Labour Market Opinion program last fall. It acknowledged that certain jobs were hard to fill and quicker approval of foreign workers with those skills was promised. Visas for Australians were also extended to two years.

But to illustrate how acute the labour shortage is becoming and how conservative government measures to date have been we go back to John Leschyson, who told B.C. Business : “Go2’s position on temporary foreign workers is that we should be handling this through permanent immigration.”

That’s an ominous message for anyone in Whistler who thinks we just have to get through the next two years.

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