January 30, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

Work wanted 

How the tanking economy is hitting home in a big way

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Tough times on Easy Street
In a basement suite on Easy Street in Whistler Cay, 23-year-old Nadine Einarson and 19-year-old Rachel Lister breezily joke about their latest drinking adventures and Lister's secret aspirations to get a house cat.

But - on this crispy Thursday afternoon, as the bluebird sun shines hot outside and the whoops and yee-haws of skiers and boarders can almost be heard pouring off the mountaintops in snow culture orgasms - it doesn't take long before their conversation turns stark and serious.

A new reality has taken shape in Whistler. After years of employee shortages, there is now almost no work available.

With solemn faces (not often seen on this town's newly arrived), the girls recount their struggles to score a job - any job - within Whistler's boundaries. Career ads in the local papers have shriveled to a few dozen each week; online job boards are bare; and "Help Wanted" signs, once common in shop windows, have just about disappeared from the village landscape.

"I don't want to be a housekeeper," confides Einarson, who last worked with Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, the Vancouver-based architectural company building the 2010 Celebration Plaza.

"I'm 23, I have a degree and I've never had to do that kind of a job. I've never had to work at a fast food restaurant. But now I'm starting to think that housekeeping would be really sweet."

She sighs.

Einarson and Lister's moods have changed considerably since they first arrived in Whistler two weeks ago, stoked and laughing. Somehow, despite unfavorable odds, they navigated the notorious rental market and snagged an affordable place just a 20-minute walk from the village.

The girls thought they were set up for another perfect winter season. Last year, they were both hired as lifties for Whistler Blackcomb within days of arriving in town. They assumed this year would be the same.

Now, Einarson and Lister are spending their time religiously handing out resumes to local companies and scouring websites for job postings. Occasionally, they cough up $90 for a day pass on Whistler Blackcomb or trek to restaurants and bars for some entertainment.

But the snow conditions are poor, and their bank accounts are draining fast.

Both girls confess if they don't find work soon, they'll pack their bags, say goodbye to Easy Street, and move back home (Vancouver for Einarson, Brisbane for Lister).

"The cost of living here is so high," sighs Lister.

"Even if you have a job, you struggle."

Boom to bust

The job shortage is new to Whistler. Up until November 2008, finding work was almost effortless. The town was revving up for the 2010 Olympics and, in the process, playing host to a construction boom that saw new homes, new facilities and state-of-the-art buildings popping up almost monthly.

High wages and low qualifications at construction sites lured some of Whistler's long-time chefs and retail workers away from the village. Carpenters and welders from around B.C. - and Canada - were also moving into Whistler apartments and taking high-paying jobs.

With the ever-soaring demand for more bodies to work more construction projects, the already tight rental market was in a virtual chokehold. Finding housing, not work, was the rite of passage to a mountain resort life.

On top of that, Whistler had just experienced two good snow winters and the global economy was sturdy. Travellers from around the world were journeying to the future Olympic resort to spend dollars, and local companies couldn't keep up with the demand for services. Businesses were hiring employees at every opportunity and praying that at least a few would stay until the end of the ski season - officially June, unofficially the last weekend of the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival in April.

Front-line staff often joked: "Don't show up to work if you don't want to. You can always find a job somewhere else."

Then, in September, the U.S. subprime mortgage market hit a critical stage when the housing bubble burst, sending large finance companies and funds to the brink of bankruptcy. Soon after, the world economy began to tank. By October, the situation continued to worsen with a series of stock market crashes that drew comparisons to 1930. And as the aftermath unraveled in November, many economists forecasted the global recession would persist for at least another year, if not longer.

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