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Chamber to host Immigration Minister

Business leaders to discuss staff shortage, extending working visas

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Federal Immigration Minister Monte Solberg is coming to Whistler on Friday, Sept. 8 to discuss possible changes to the working visa program with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.

The meeting stems from an informal discussion between the minister and Chamber of Commerce representatives at a Conservative Party fundraiser on Aug. 21, where Solberg acknowledged that Canada is facing a skilled labour shortage across the country.

According to Whistler Chamber President Louise Lundy she followed up with the minister the following week and extended an invitation to come to Whistler that was accepted.

"The goal is to have a small, roundtable discussion that will include representatives from as many groups as possible," said Lundy. "There will be a representative from the hotels, retail, Whistler-Blackcomb, and our Go2 representative to get across the concerns we have in Whistler and the specific help we need with extending the working holiday visa program, as well as some other ideas we can bring forward."

Specifically, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce is focused on increasing the length of working visas to two years from one, and allowing more extensions. While changing the existing program is complicated – Canada has reciprocal working visa programs with most countries that would have to be changed, and at least three federal ministries are involved – Lundy says extending the program will have the most immediate benefit for Whistler.

Whistler’s employee shortage is hard to quantify. Pique’s classified section is almost 20 per cent bigger in recent weeks compared to the same time in past years, and many shops and restaurants have resorted to putting ads in the window and offering perks. The anecdotal evidence is also piling up, with one restaurant offering dishwashers $14 an hour and another offering free video iPods to dishwashers after six weeks at $11 an hour. There were no takers on the latter offer. Hotels are also understaffed, although the resort is experiencing one of its busiest summers yet in terms of visitor numbers.

A study of worker needs by Go2, a tourism industry association created to address human resource issues, found that Whistler is short about 3,500 seasonal workers during the busy winter season – and that’s if all of the town’s full-time residents are working. Lundy believes the actual number is between 5,000 and 5,500. Furthermore, the chamber is expecting the problem to get worse through 2010.

The Citizenship and Immigration Ministry is under pressure across Canada to let in more immigrants to fill a nationwide employee shortage, as well as to pressure Canadian trade and professional organizations to speed up their recognition and testing of foreign credentials. While that would help Whistler in the long run, Lundy believes extending the working holiday visa program will help the resort through the short term.

She’s optimistic that the roundtable meetings can be effective. "It’s quite a shock, but since touching base with the minister I spoke to his chief of staff who indicated that one way government often makes policy changes is by talking to groups like us, and using our suggestion to making changes to different policies," said Lundy.

"We were thrilled to hear that, it gives us a sense of hope that we’re not dealing with a huge bureaucracy that will say it can’t be done. He’s saying we do have an intriguing idea to change the worker visa program."

Solberg’s own Alberta riding has a severe worker shortage, and businesses are closing because they can’t find employees.

Lundy doesn’t know how quickly government can act, or whether it’s possible to change the rules in time for this winter, but says the sooner the better.

There are several reasons given for the worker shortage, ranging from an aging population, changing demographics, and the recent boom in high paying resource and construction industry jobs. As for attracting temporary employees through the holiday worker program, Whistler is now competing with several other mountain resorts trying to tap into the same pool of workers.

The Chamber will pick delegates from different local industries to meet with the Minister, but Lundy is certain that most businesses would have the same message for Solberg when it comes to extending visas.

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