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Attracting and keeping employees in Squamish

At Ignite Your Hiring session, employers shared advice and challenges
The District's Kate Mulligan, Cardinal Concrete's Amy Fast, Amber Gould from the Women's Centre, Ashley Green from Climb On, Adrian Blachut, the owner of Zephyr Café and moderator Christine-McLeod.

It is no secret that hiring and retention of employees is a challenge in Squamish.

At the Ignite Your Hiring session held Nov. 29 at Quest University, employers came together to discuss their obstacles and successes: advice was given, business cards were exchanged and networks strengthened.

The District of Squamish in partnership with WorkBC Sea to Sky, and the Squamish Chamber of Commerce hosted the session, which included a panel discussion featuring representatives from long-term, successful Squamish businesses.

Though focused on local success stories, even thriving Squamish business owners on the panel acknowledged they face some common problems.

Ashley Green, owner of the popular outdoor gear store Climb On, said that while she previously prided herself on paying 30 per cent above other retailers, she hasn't been able to keep that difference static with the increase in the minimum wage.

"We can't keep being that same percentage on top," she said.  "We work with fixed margins. Our cost of goods is fixed. Our retail prices are fixed. We can't just put our prices up 10 per cent to compensate. Every time we raise staff compensation levels, it comes directly out of our profits. That is scary for me because I want to be more competitive, and I want to offer a better wage, and we are…, but it is not quite what we would like."

 Her retail sales associates currently make between $15 and $20 per hour. Full-time employees also receive extended health care benefits and the staff is eligible for bonuses and gear discounts.

Other panelists noted a range of hourly pay.

The always-busy and well-staffed Zephyr Cafe pays $14 to $15 per hour to start and up to $22 per hour.

The Howe Sound Women's Centre pays $17 to $25 or more, depending on the position.

Employees at the foundational Squamish business, Cardinal Concrete, and its associated companies, earn between $19 to $32 per hour, depending on the skill of the position.

Several employers in attendance at the event mentioned having to resort to visa workers — temporary foreign workers — due to a shortage of local employees.

Most members of the panel noted housing affordability as a major challenge.

One solution may be seasonal housing, Green said.

"But what I am really concerned about is long-term affordable housing for people who we would like to see rise up in our organization," she added

The Sea to Sky Gondola supplies housing for its employees. The company has 52 beds spread out over six properties the company leases, according to a gondola representative in the audience.

Retention of good employees was a theme of the day, according to Kate Mulligan, the District's economic development officer.

"The way that these businesses are successful is by giving really good retention packages," she said. "That is how they keep the staffing and the momentum of the staffing and the reputation. You can put all your eggs in the basket of trying to hire... but if you don't have your retention strategy sorted out, it is futile."

In addition to wages, employers present noted they offer a variety of perks, from discounts to bonuses and parties to funds for professional development.

Sometimes the thing that makes an employee want to stay with an organization is intangible.

The Howe Sound Women's Centre, at its locations in Squamish and Whistler, has a staff of about 40, plus a dozen volunteers.

Some of the staff has been with the organization for more than 20 years.

"We have a pretty strong 'why' that connects us all together," said Amber Gould, who represented the women's centre on the panel. "We are working for a common goal... and so we tend to have people who are doing heart-centred work and they are happy with the work they are doing because they can see it is having an impact on the community."

Gould added that staff wellness is a focus.


What is the District doing to help employers?

In addition to hosting the event at Quest, the District has recently launched the online Squamish Hiring & Retention Guide, which provides a rundown of local wages by sector and has a lot of other data and information about the composition of the Squamish workforce. [Go to to access the online portal.]

The District also spearheads the Connect Place Plan working group, which deals with business infrastructure.

"It could be anything from fibre networks to childcare, to housing to employment space," said Mulligan. The three areas the group is focusing on currently are workforce housing, ensuring adequate employment space and addressing the short-term rental market.

"Consulting with our planning department, which is leading the review around short-term rentals, its impact on our workforce and employers,” Mulligan explained.

Panel at the Ignite Your Hiring session held Nov. 29 at Quest University.
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