Opinion » Editorial

Labour issues loom but housing not the factor it once was



"With constrained labour markets both here in B.C. and throughout the rest of Canada due to our aging population, the scarcity of available workers will limit our ability to grow our regional and provincial economies."

– Ryan Berlin, Business In Vancouver, July 24-30, 2012

Berlin, a writer and economic analyst with Urban Futures, is only the latest demographer/number cruncher/forward thinker to warn of a looming labour crisis facing B.C. and Canada. In February this year the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said the country's labour shortage is becoming "desperate" and threatens the country's global economic competitiveness. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2012/02/08/canada-labour-shortage.html)

The chamber's pronouncement came a day after the Toronto-Dominion Bank said the federal government could put the equivalent of 370,000 more people to work if it tweaked the immigration system to focus on the long-term needs of the job market. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2012/02/07/td-jobs-immigrants.html) The problem is not so much a shortage of people — nationally, unemployment is still above pre-recession levels — it's matching labour skills to a rapidly evolving job market. Many immigrants, or potential immigrants, have the skills Canada needs but they face at least two hurdles: their qualifications may not be recognized in this country and the overwhelmed Canadian immigration system is biased toward temporary, unskilled workers.

The country's shortage of skilled workers and its aging workforce — similar to that of many western nations — is further exacerbated by the giant labour sinkhole that is the Alberta oil fields, drawing skilled and able-bodied workers from all corners of Canada with wages that the tourism industry can't begin to compete with. Taken altogether, these factors should worry Whistler.

And yet, among smaller centres in the tourism business, Whistler is better positioned than most. And a big part of that may be attributed to the 2010 Olympics.

Prior to the Olympics, and prior to the economic nosedive of 2008, British Columbians were told repeatedly about the need to prepare for a looming labour shortage. Efforts were made to train under-employed people for the skills that would be needed, including tourism programs aimed at the aboriginal community. The success of these programs will be measured in the years to come.

Where Whistler is benefitting from the Olympics right now is in affordable resident housing. The development of 436 resident housing units at the former athletes' village (Cheakamus Crossing) and the Rainbow development has transformed the once-grave housing situation. Recall that Rainbow was originally approved because it was expected to provide affordable housing in the crucial period prior to the Olympics. While that didn't turn out to be the case, the development is now thriving, housing full-time Whistler residents.

This influx of new affordable housing on such a scale has opened up the market for renters and for first-time buyers, those people who are putting down roots in Whistler and will be the future leaders of the community.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that since renters have had more options, rents have declined to more affordable levels.

It used to be a mad scramble for seasonal workers to find housing, with many forced to commute from Pemberton or Squamish due to the lack of suitable housing in Whistler or the exorbitant rents. It's still not easy, but according to the Whistler Housing Authority's 2011 needs assessment (http://www.whistlerhousing.ca/learn_more.html), 95 per cent of seasonal workers found housing in Whistler in the winter of 2010-11. That's up from 81 per cent the previous winter.

The importance of seasonal workers to the overall vibrancy of Whistler has been recognized for some time, but they also factor into the level of service provided by Whistler businesses. The quality of their housing affects their performance at work. While Whistler Blackcomb has long maintained housing for much of its seasonal workforce, many small businesses in Whistler that rely on seasonal employees — the retail shops and restaurants — were impacted by the lack of affordable rental housing.

Lest anyone doubt the importance of the seasonal workforce, the WHA figures from 2010-11 show that seasonal workers made up 45 per cent of the total winter workforce of 11,800 full-time equivalent jobs.

Of course it's not just seasonal workers who have benefitted from the new housing. According to the WHA, 82 per cent of Whistler's total workforce resided in town in 2010-11, up from 76 per cent the year prior. The WHA's original goal was to house 70 per cent of the workforce in Whistler.

Interestingly, the size of Whistler's workforce has declined, not just since the recession but almost steadily for about the last decade. According to the WHA's figures, the all-time high for employment in Whistler was 14,500 in the winter of 2002-03. With the exception of two winters, 2006-07 and 2007-08, the number has decreased annually to 11,800 in 2010-11. The Whistler2020 monitoring report echoes this trend, showing a relatively steady decline in the estimated year-round seasonal workforce from a high of 3,402 in 2004 to 2,754 in 2010. This decline has probably helped the housing situation but there may be deeper implications.

Meanwhile, Whistler will undoubtedly feel the constraints of the labour market in the years ahead but the housing situation is, at least for the immediate future, not nearly the constraint it once was — or still is for many other resort towns.