By Alison Taylor
In less than two months Reena Verma, human resources director at the Four Seasons, will need roughly 200 more workers at her hotel.
Primarily she’s looking for housekeepers, stewards, and dishwashers — the jobs that are always toughest to fill.
She knows it’s not going to be easy, as Whistler heads into the 2006-07 winter season facing what may be the biggest labour shortage in the resort’s history.
In this competitive climate, said Verma, there’s a war on in Whistler for talented workers.
When federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg met with select local businesses last week Verma and others impressed upon him the labour issue plaguing the resort as the winter season draws closer.
“He understands the challenges that we’re having,” said Verma.
“We’re not talking a year from now. We’re talking in four or five weeks time.”
Solberg met Friday with representatives from the hotel, construction and recreation sector, along with Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler, and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. He later went on a village tour and spoke to several store operators.
“He seemed very receptive and open to hearing our suggestions,” said Louise Lundy, president of the chamber of commerce, which hosted the meeting.
“He definitely understood that we have an issue here, and it’s not just Whistler.”
While Solberg did not announce any federal changes to address the labour issue last Friday, there was a hint that an announcement may be made later in the fall.
The group discussed extending the current Working Holiday Visa Program from one year to two years as a way of dealing with the labour crunch.
Lundy said that change would not require a legislation change and as such could be implemented in the short term.
That could help someone like Doug Washer, owner/operator of Canadian Snowmobiles, who was also part of the working sessions.
“For us to be able to keep staff longer term obviously helps the bottom line because we’re not training as much and we have a stronger skill set that we’re drawing upon each year, and that’s really important to an operation like ours,” said Washer.
Verma is not convinced that will have as strong an impact on her labour shortages at the Four Seasons. She would like to see the government simplify the process for bringing in foreign workers to fill the positions in the hotel.
“Right now the process is quite elaborate and cumbersome,” she said.
Lundy said the minister explained some of the challenges he faces around security issues, which makes it difficult to increase quotas for foreign workers and landed immigrants.
And she recognized that lobbying the federal government for change is just one part of the puzzle.
The chamber is in the process of recruiting a Human Resources Development Officer to do the long term planning to meet the labour challenges, which will include tapping into every available labour source — locally, nationally and internationally.
“We’re just hoping that by the time the snow flies our efforts have paid off and kids are showing up to come to work and that we’re doing a good job of retaining people as well,” said Lundy.
Friday’s chance to air their concerns to the minister was very much appreciated said Washer, bringing attention to the fact that the labour issue is affecting tourism.
Attracting and retaining quality workers will be critical for Whistler to remain competitive in the marketplace, he added.