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‘The community has to recognize this is a problem’

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Businesses trace staffing shortfalls, lower standard of service back to housing shortage

Despite a below average snow year, Whistler merchants report business was good this winter season – but for many it came at a price that may ultimately threaten the economic sustainability of the resort.

The numbers are not scientific and the evidence anecdotal but a Whistler Chamber of Commerce survey, showed that once again, resort businesses were understaffed.

Chamber president Bob Adams said some small businesses were down by as many as 10 employees during the season. This left some employers manning their own front lines 16 to 18 hours per day a day, often seven days a week, said Adams.

"I think it was quite a stressful year."

This was the second staffing survey done by the chamber. The previous winter respondents to the first survey indicated they were 421 employees short. There were fewer responses to the 2001 survey, which was done in late February, but the 150 chamber members who did reply, were between them, short 278 employees.

Most blamed a lack of affordable housing.

"And secondly, they said it was an affordability issue. Just living in Whistler in general was not affordable," noted Adams.

"I don’t think everybody fully recognizes the magnitude of this problem or how it might affect them," said Dave Davenport who owns several Whistler businesses and sits on Whistler’s Core Commercial Committee.

"The community has to recognize this is a problem and that it is important for the entire community to solve that problem."

Davenport said staffing is becoming more of a challenge for the business sector each year. One of the reasons is demographics. There are simply fewer 18-20 year olds in the industrialized world. Another possibility is there may be more jobs in Ontario and other parts of the country which are experiencing a strong economy.

But on a micro level, Davenport said he thinks the message is out that Whistler isn’t a fun place to work any more: There is a dearth of accommodation; the cost of living is high and the quality of life is low.

Marta Sutherland, the chamber’s employment centre co-ordinator, said the number of people walking through her doors has dropped significantly over previous years. Last January, for example, the employment centre saw 1,080 people walk in, compared to 619 in January 2001.

Not everyone who steps into the employment centre is looking for work but it is an indication that numbers have dropped off. Sutherland said the reason may be that Whistler’s large employers are using their own human resources departments for some aggressive recruiting and drawing down the employee pool.

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