Not enough cooks in Whistler kitchens 

Chamber, employers meet with federal minister of human resources

Whistler needs more chefs.

And it would be great if the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was extended to employees from the U.K., New Zealand, South Africa, Korea and Japan.

Those were just a couple of the issues raised with Monte Solberg, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development and Member of Parliament for Medicine Hat, at a recent Whistler meeting.

At the table were the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the Four Seasons and Whistler-Blackcomb — some of the biggest employers in the resort.

“We do get the sense that the minister understands the issues and takes it very seriously,” said chamber president Louise Lundy.

“He follows up with us and does address our concerns and appears to be wanting to make a difference.”

Lundy said employers looking for workers in the culinary field have been hitting a roadblock because government is telling them that there are lots of chefs on the unemployment list. Foreign workers won’t be brought if there are Canadians to do the job.

Lundy said Solberg was somewhat surprised to hear this and committed to investigating it.

Under a new pilot project running in several places, including Whistler, employers can try and fast track getting foreign workers into Canada. The program is known as the Expedited Labour Market Opinion Project.

Under the E-LMO employers can bring in workers in days not months if their occupations are part of the project. ( www.hrsdc.gc.ca/en/workplaceskills/foreign_workers )

Lundy said Whistler is trying to push for chefs to be added to the list of categories.

The Four Season Hotel was the first hotel in B.C. to get on board with the E-LMO process.

“We are committed to making it work,” said General manager Scott Taber, adding that it has not been without some challenges.

At the meeting he explained to Solberg that a piece of documentation that was part of the application process was causing headaches and holding up the whole process.

Generally though, said Taber: “I felt intensity about this from him, and empathy.”

Solberg, reached in Ottawa, said labour shortages are at the top of his list of priorities.

“I think this is one of the most important issues facing the country today economically,” he said.

“It is extraordinarily important and in the long run I think it is our biggest economic challenge.”

He described the meetings with Whistler representatives as “very helpful” adding that he would be looking into the issues raised.

“They made a compelling argument that more needed to be done to address the problem of not enough chefs,” said Solberg. “So we have been in discussion with our department about it…   On the one hand Canadian workers always get the first crack at these jobs, but where there just aren’t enough we have a system that works effectively and we can address labour market needs as quickly as possible.

“Right now we are just gathering data and getting the right facts and then we will figure out where we will go from there, but we sure are alive to some of the concerns… raised.

“Whistler will be home to (the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games) and we want to make sure that there are enough workers to accommodate the thousands and thousands of people who will be coming to Whistler for the Olympics.”

Solberg pointed to several initiatives the government is working on to help with labour shortages including funding transfers to the province to bring people back into the workforce with training, the apprenticeship incentive grant program, financial assistant to help students from low and middle income families go to post secondary institutions, and an initiative for older workers.

“All of those things combined will go some distance toward addressing some of these concerns,” said Solberg.

“But we also need more immigrants and the temporary foreign worker program.

“In the past few years the size of the temporary foreign worker program has tripled and so I think we have responded. We are bringing in far more temporary workers than previous government did because we get it.”

That’s good news to Lundy, who hopes to continue meeting face to face with the minister.

“We are not just sitting here with our hands open saying to the government fix our problem,” she said.

“We are doing a lot of things and it starts with housing initiatives, the whole Spirit Program, trying to do things to attract workers ourselves, and trying to work with employers on how to retain people through recognition.

“… We are not just looking to them and saying help us. But there are barriers that are in the way of our success and we need them to help us get through.”

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