Whistler desperate for workers 

Immigration minister says he understands need for labour

Whistler has an employee shortage. According to a study that gauged the worker shortage in the Sea to Sky corridor, the most conservative estimate is that Whistler needs at least 3,500 seasonal workers, and that’s if all of the town’s residents work full time. According to Louise Lundy, Chamber of Commerce president, the actual number is between 5,000 and 5,500 workers.

"That’s an actual statistical review talking to employers to understand the issues," said Lundy. "If you talked to any human resources at hotels… if you walked the village and talked to business owners they would tell you their biggest issue is that they can’t find people. They’re basically desperate."

Some shops have had to adjust hours or close in the slow season, and have been offering unusual incentives to get employees to sign on and stay. Monk’s Grill was offering free video iPods and cash bonuses to dishwashers who committed to a six-week contract.

But the employee shortage is not just a Whistler issue, it’s a Canadian problem. Alberta and B.C. are particularly hard hit by shortages, but there are unusual numbers of help wanted signs across the country.

Lundy and William Roberts, president of the Whistler Forum, were invited by John Weston, the Conservative Party candidate for the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky riding, to meet with federal Immigration Minister Monte Solberg on Monday and discuss possible solutions to the worker shortage.

According to Lundy, being from Alberta, Solberg understood the problem and said the government would be announcing new programs shortly to help address the worker shortage. The ministry already announced a new program last week to open the doors wider to foreign entrepreneurs.

"In Whistler it’s a serious issue, it’s really hard to know if we’ll have enough staff for this season or not, and based on trends and economic research we know it’s only going to get worse in the next 10 years," said Lundy. "We told all this to the minister, who nodded his head to say ‘I know, I know’. His riding in Alberta is clamoring for new workers, and businesses are actually closing because they can’t find anybody to work."

There are several reasons for the worker shortage. The main one is the strong economy and activity in resource industries – mostly in oil and gas – that hasn’t been seen in decades. Compounding the problem is the fact that baby boomers are working less as they get older, and the demographic shift means there aren’t enough young workers to replace them.

Canada also has a declining birth rate, and immigration isn’t keeping up with current demands and projected growth.

While Whistler’s problem is no doubt exacerbated by these issues, Lundy says the Chamber is focused on extending the holiday worker visa program to two years from one year. While some businesses have been successful in landing extensions for employees in the past, Lundy says it’s too expensive and onerous for most businesses to go through the process.

"We have a number of employees that come for the winter program, they come to ski and work, and sometimes they get promoted, maybe they met a girl or a guy – whatever happens, a lot of people like living here and don’t want to leave after their one year term," said Lundy.

"(Extending to two years) is a quick fix that we believe will help us fill thousands of positions every season, which is why we’re focusing on the one change. We’re not asking (government) to change the program, just extend the period guests can work."

As well as filling positions, keeping employees for a second year will also reduce the cost of training for businesses that are constantly hiring new staff. Also, the employees will be more familiar with the community after one year, which will improve the visitor experience.

Lundy presented a letter to the Immigration Minister explaining the need for an extension and spoke briefly with him about the issue. While he was sympathetic and supportive, Lundy realizes that it won’t be easy to change the rules. For one thing, there are at least three federal ministries involved that have to support the rule change. "There’s lots of need for cooperation there, and everyone will have to understand the issue," said Lundy.

Another problem is the fact that guest worker programs are usually reciprocal – the same rules apply to Canadians working abroad as to foreign workers visiting Canada.

"It’s more complicated I think than it sounds, but the minister was interested in the idea," Lundy said. "We’re really going to push this issue because we feel it’s a really big one for the community. Even if it’s temporary it will help us to the Olympics, when hopefully the demographics are a bit better."

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