Squamish’s low-wage employment options are sending its younger population packing, says a former resident.
From his home in Courtenay, Mike Enders’ frustration can be heard through his voice over the phone.
“The only wages I could find were minimum-wage jobs,” he said of his former hometown. “I simply couldn’t afford minimum wage. It was hard, it was hard to leave.”
Having graduated from Howe Sound Secondary School, Enders started his hospitality career in Whistler working for $18 an hour. Sick of seasonal jobs, Enders went on a job hunt in Squamish. But what he found was disappointing, he said. It was a sea of $10.25-an-hour jobs.
“Nobody likes $10.25 an hour,” Enders said.
Unable to afford Squamish’s cost of living on those wages, Enders headed to Vancouver Island, where he now works at a hotel. The experience has been bitter, he noted, adding the people hit hardest are young adults out of high school and university.
Enders’ hunch is backed by a recent District of Squamish survey. Last year, municipal officials interviewed 73 Squamish businesses, which employed a total of 1,333 people, to better understand local industries. Just over 29 per cent of respondents indicated that most of their essential staff are between the ages of 26 to 34. Forty-nine per cent stated their employees were between the ages of 35 to 49.
There doesn’t seem to be any one demographic coming through Training Innovations’ doors, said Tara Mollett, the employment service’s program manager. The consulting team sees everyone from seniors to immigrants, she noted.
“We realize a lot of people want to find work in Squamish and sometimes there is not that match,” Mollett said.
A higher percentage of available jobs in Squamish are held by the service sector, she said. Typically, those jobs come with lower wages, Mollet noted.
After the 2010 Winter Olympics, people accessing Training Innovations' services hit an all-time peak.
Currently employee requirements seem to be going through a transition period, Mollett said. Some of the service’s clients, such as former forestry workers, are switching career paths, Mollett said. Training Innovations works closely with people to achieve their personal career goals, she said.
“It can’t be fixed overnight,” Mollett said. “We recognize that there are challenges for both employers and employees right now in Squamish.”
Ashley Dolbec doesn’t fit into that category. While approximately 1,500 Squamoleons commute to the Lower Mainland, the 22-year-old was travelling up the highway to Two Birds Eatery. After four months of back and forth, she moved to Squamish permanently.
Learning culinary skills under the café’s co-owner, renowned chef Carole Bird, was an opportunity that would be hard to come by in the city, Dolbec said. Competition is tough and apprenticeship positions are vigorously fought over, she noted.
“There is a whole different mentality because there are so many people,” Dolbec said.
Wages in Squamish mimic those in the Lower Mainland, she added, noting that a dishwasher anywhere earns a similar wage. On average, interviewees in the district survey indicated that the average hourly wage for skilled/professional staff was $30, dropping to $18 for semi-skilled, entry-level positions.
Forty-one per cent of businesses surveyed stated they were experiencing recruitment problems. Capilano University is looking to fill a disconnect between employers’ need for employees and those searching for work. Of the 41 per cent, the skill set sought was relatively diverse, the report noted. Some of the more popular skills sought ranged from administrative work to hospitality services.
Funded by province, the university is offering courses on business and computer essentials and retail and hospitality at its Squamish campus. The Employment Skills Access Program classes are free for individuals who are unemployed, but not on employment insurance (EI).
So far the interest has been high, said Lynn Jest, the university’s director of continuing education. Twelve of the 15 spaces available in the business and computer essentials course are full. The hospitality course, which includes cashier training, starts in the spring.
“Very often we find in the Howe Sound corridor a lot of small businesses need book and applied skills,” Jest said.