As Whistler has struggled to regain the heady numbers it enjoyed prior to the turn of the millennium theres been a lot of focus on attracting visitors. But theres another group that is also going to require an improved recruitment effort: employees.
During last falls election campaign then mayoral candidate Ken Melamed identified one of the issues on the horizon for Whistler as a shortage of construction workers at a time when several major construction projects will be ramping up to be ready for the 2010 Olympics. Having officially slipped into spring this week, we have now just about reached that point on the horizon, and work on the sliding centre, the Nordic centre and several other major projects should begin shortly.
For the past year and a half the construction industry in B.C. has been sounding alarm bells about a shortage of skilled labour. That message is now resonating with most people, partly because of the construction industrys campaign and because most people are aware of the 2010 deadline for many of the major construction projects planned for B.C.
But while we in Whistler are trying to get ready for 2010, fewer of us are thinking about the general labour shortage that is facing B.C., Canada and, in fact, most countries in the Western world. There will, undoubtedly be enough volunteers for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2010, but will there be enough workers to keep service at the level expected by international visitors?
A recent Manpower Inc. survey of Canadian businesses showed Canada has one of the most serious labour shortages in the industrial world, second only to Mexico. Sixty-eight per cent of Canadian employers couldnt find qualified staff, according to a recent report in the Globe & Mail.
The story also quoted Dan Kelly, Canadian Federation of Independent Business vice-president for Western Canada, as saying the human capital shortage is the biggest issue facing small business today, and that the shortages are highest in Western Canada.
Weve all seen this problem coming for some time. Aging baby boomers are now leaving the workforce in greater numbers than new workers are entering. And the only thing older than the retiring boomers is Canadas immigration policies, which are completely inadequate for addressing this problem.
At the local level, weve had glimpses of the labour shortage at fall job fairs in recent years but the problem hasnt been acute. Whistler is still attracting young people willing to work, but the competition for those people is going to get more intense.
Generally speaking, small businesses have trouble competing with the wages and benefits offered by large companies. Whistler, of course, is mostly about small businesses.
And in Alberta, the oil boom in the north is being felt by small businesses throughout the province, including those in Banff. As much as young people may like to ski and snowboard, the money they can make working in the oil sands can be more enticing. As a result, small hotels and shops in Banff that had no trouble finding employees two years ago are now feeling the pinch of a labour shortage.
This isnt just an Alberta problem, because Banff businesses are competing for the same employees as Whistler businesses. If someone looking to live and work in a mountain resort goes shopping for a town how will Whistler stack up against Banff, or Sun Peaks or Big White or Fernie? We may claim to have better boarding/skiing/biking than those towns, but how difficult and expensive is it to live here compared to those towns? How dearly are we going to pay for the last three years, when exactly zero employee housing was built?
The competition for employees is just beginning, but its going to get a lot tougher. Besides competing with other mountain resort towns, the competition from other industries is expected to increase as trade programs in, for instance, the construction industry ramp up.
It is not all doom and gloom, of course. There are tourism training programs, including the recently expanded program at Capilano Colleges Squamish campus, that are preparing young people for careers in the tourism industry. The Whistler Chamber of Commerces training programs also allow people to expand their skills and open up more job opportunities. And there are sources of labour that have been largely untapped, including First Nations, seniors and disabled persons.
But the tourism industry, which the provincial government wants to see double in size over a decade, is going to face increasingly stiff competition for workers.