Opinion » Editorial

Decline in workforce numbers a warning sign?



What should we make of the fact the size of Whistler's workforce has declined, not just since the 2008 recession, but almost steadily for about a decade?

The all-time high for winter season jobs in Whistler, according to the Whistler Housing Authority's annual surveys of Whistler businesses, was 14,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs in the winter of 2002-03. After three years of decline it jumped to 14,200 in the winter of 2006-07. From there the figure has descended steadily, to 11,800 in the winter of 2010-11.

The decline in the number of FTE jobs, from 14,500 to 11,800, is more than 18 per cent. It is generally attributed to businesses "tightening their belts" and trying to run leaner.

Keep in mind these figures were compiled through a survey employers voluntarily completed. And they represent the winter season workforce rather than a year-round average. The Whistler2020 data focuses on the year- round workforce and it, too, shows a similar declining trend in recent years.

Next month the WHA will release numbers for last winter that are expected to show the number of winter FTE jobs remained stable for the first time in years at about 11,800.

As noted here last week, the good news from the WHA survey is that housing is not nearly the issue it used to be for employees and employers. In fact, the 2010-11 survey found for the first time in the 14 years the WHA has been doing the Employer Housing Needs Assessment that none of the winter season staff shortages were attributed to a lack of housing. In all previous surveys housing had been cited as a contributing factor to attaining or maintaining staff levels.

While the housing situation is much better than it used to be, a decline in the winter workforce of more than 18 per cent over eight years is worth further investigation.

Certainly the tourism business has faced some hurdles since the turn of the century. The list is familiar: 9/11, SARS, increased border security, rising fuel costs, unstable airlines, unfavourable exchange rates and the 2008 financial crisis. And perhaps this is all the explanation needed for Whistler businesses tightening their belts and making do with fewer staff.

The workforce figures in the last decade contrast sharply with the exponential growth Whistler saw in the 1990s. The resort was expanding physically, with new hotels and condos every year, but also with new businesses and new jobs.

And you could argue — using anecdotal evidence — this growth helped attract some of the best employees, entrepreneurs and managers. The excitement wasn't only about Whistler's growth in the 1990s but the opportunities that seemed almost limitless, for individuals and for Whistler itself as it took on Vail, Aspen and the other big mountain resorts.

Of course, this growth wasn't sustainable. The most immediate stress on the system was the shortage of affordable housing for Whistler's workforce. That issue is, at least for the time being, under control. The holdover from the 1990s that Whistler now faces is the over-supply of accommodation. Or under-supply of visitors filling that accommodation.

In the last decade, Whistler rebuilt and strengthened much of its infrastructure in preparation for the 2010 Olympics. Affordable housing, an expanded and upgraded sewer system, a huge fibre-optic connection to the Lower Mainland, the highway upgrade, snowmaking systems, Whistler Olympic Plaza and the Nordic centre in the Callaghan Valley have all solidified or expanded the foundation for business in Whistler.

And yet, the size of the winter workforce declined more than 18 per cent over eight years. Whether a smaller workforce had a direct impact on net promoter scores — customer evaluations of service in Whistler — is hard to determine. We do know that net promoter scores were declining for several years. They are now on the ascendency once again.

Belt tightening, cutting the fat, rightsizing and a bunch of other clichés explain some of the reduced workforce. But a significant number of businesses have just plain closed up shop in the last 10 years. The number of commercial spaces available for rent appears to have increased, and they have definitely become more visible. And on a human level, think of the number of managers who have left Whistler in the last decade.

Much of this is a normal part of the business cycle. Whistler is "maturing" rather than growing. Some consolidation is expected, especially in a sputtering economy.

However, looming on the horizon is an expected general labour shortage, as the population ages and competition for skilled workers increases. We may be getting comfortable with the current situation — the workforce well housed and businesses running leaner than ever — but the formula will change again. The question is: are we prepared for it?