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‘We’re drowning’: Squamish staffing shortage continues as busy summer season nears

A look at the problem and solutions to the current labour crunch.

No matter the business owner you talk to in Squamish, the anxiety seems to be the same — having enough staff to survive the upcoming busy summer season.

Some say the local labour shortage has reached a crisis level.

Laura Di Cecco, owner of The Grateful Gift Shop, on Third Avenue, says while the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions and return of visitors to the corridor should bring excitement to local retailers, it brings her anxiety.

Her shop needs five employees and when she spoke to The Squamish Chief earlier this month, she had two.

“I am kind of filling in for all of the hours,” she said.

There are also days when the shop has to close during hours she would like it to be open.

The store has a retail side and a coffee shop side. There have been “numerous” days, Di Cecco said, when one or the other has to be closed due to a lack of staff.

“We lose revenue in that case. So it’s a bit hard. It’s also hard to stay consistent for our customers. We can’t be open always in the hours that we say that we will.”

She opened her boutique in November and staffing has been an issue since, but it is more acute now, as summer dawns.

Di Cecco said it is a bit puzzling to see the employee drought at a time when Squamish is growing with so many new developments.

“Obviously, our town is growing a ton. And so you would think that perhaps that would equate to a larger workforce and more people being available to hire. But it seems as though maybe most people moving here either work from home or still work in the city. So they’re not necessarily contributing to the local employment economy,” she said.

“It’s a really interesting situation because our businesses are getting busier because our town is growing, but it’s not necessarily something that we feel like we can celebrate because we’re drowning, you know?”

Di Cecco said while she doesn’t know what would fix the situation, affordable, accessible housing should be a priority. She wondered if there was a way to set aside housing for those willing to live and work in town.

Skating through it

Stuntwood owner Shane Nunn took over the business three years ago — moving from an employee at the shop to the employer.

Though he struggled for a time to find a part-time employee, he has someone now, but he worries about the future.

He brought in another local business — Ashlar Tattoo — to share the space, which allows him to pay a more than minimum wage to his employee, he said.

“I won’t have that person forever. But for now, it seems to be working out quite well. I know that they’re going to get me through the summer and stuff like that, but I might be in the same boat again trying to hire in the fall,” he said, adding that back in the day when he was younger, a job at a skateboarding shop would have been the cool gig in town for many young people.

Stuntwood is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., which makes finding employees more tricky, he said, noting it doesn’t work for high school students, who would typically want such a job.

“I do get resumes. Kids coming in to offer to work for me. But they’re all students. And unfortunately, that doesn’t work with my schedule.”

Nunn said he would like to see some financial help for local small businesses that would allow them to offer a more competitive wage in such an expensive town.

“I would love to see small businesses subsidized in some way to try to help alleviate some of that stress because it is hard to find employees in a town that’s very transient. We’re known for being a tourist town. A lot of people come for one season and leave. So as an employer, it’s really hard to invest in people. But I don’t really know a solution to that, unfortunately,” he said.

Not just the smaller shops

Kirby Brown, general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola, said the popular attraction also has staffing challenges, particularly in the food and beverage side of the business.

Compared with most smaller businesses, the gondola is able to offer a pretty sweet package for potential employees.

The gondola provides staff from afar with seasonal housing, and it has transportation for its employees built-in with a transit bus route to the gondola it financially supports. During the protracted Sea to Sky transit strike, the gondola has run a shuttle for employees.

“And we’re also looking at some retention rewards for the first time this summer to make sure that folks are keen to hang out through Labour Day weekend,” Brown said.

Core staff get a benefits package and RRSP matching.

“We’re also looking at some more innovative programs that we’re going to launch here to staff in the next couple of weeks to help with the rising cost of living issues, with groceries and such. So that’s news to come,” he said.

In total, usually, the gondola could employ about 200 employees. They currently are running with about 150.

Given the current staffing shortage, Brown said the gondola will have a more market-style food offering rather than a full restaurant-type experience.

In that portion of the business, they have about one-third of the employees they would normally have, he said.

“If you want burgers, french fries, that kind of stuff will be available. But in the lodge itself, you’ll have a market experience, which is benchmarking what people are doing and adapting. That is a classic example of how you produce good quality products, but with a fraction of the people that you need.”

The gondola is looking at hosting about 50 weddings this summer as well, Brown noted.

“I think the trick now is we all know that we’re not going to be able to support huge menus and a wide diversity of products. So it’s about doing what you do well, and really digging in around that and simplifying the rest of the business.”

An accumulation of effects

“What we’ve kind of learned is that we’ve got a structural problem — it is not any one thing. So it’s an accumulation of a whole bunch of different effects,” Brown said.

The labour shortage is a problem that has been building for years that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, Brown said.

 “I think the broader issue is something that we’ve seen coming,” Brown said, recalling a labour market study in 2002 that predicted by 2020, there would be more people leaving the workforce than could replace them.

An underappreciated piece of the pandemic was that people approaching retirement exited the workplace early without anybody to fill those voids, Brown said.

While forecasts show there will be more jobs than people to work for some time to come, the slow down in the production of holiday working visas has impacted the gondola’s employee roster in the short term.  

Some of the gondola’s core employees were looking at having to return to their home countries due to the visa issue, so the gondola stepped in to help, according to Brown.

“We jumped in with support for them financially to get lawyers so they can accelerate the permanent residency process,” he said. And we are happy to do that. But those would have been crucial core people that we would have lost.”

In Brown’s view, one relatively quick-win action that could help the labour shortage is extending the length of time people can stay under a holiday working visa.

“Why not allow them to stay in the country for a third year? Now we’ve got somebody who loves a place, who knows the job and who is performing very well. They have got community relationships, are able to find secure housing… without causing any more work burden on the federal government. I think the same can be said for non-Commonwealth working holiday visas. Why not follow the same logic and move from one year to two years?”

Brown said the holiday visa programs are also ageist. By increasing the age folks can qualify, more people might be available to work.

“Why not assume that some 40 and 50 years olds, if they’re going to take a year off, might like some subsequent income — to help subsidize a trip,” he said.

Then you could have mature people who have lots of experiencea benefit to the Canadian workforce.

“And again, no more work for the federal government. There are some things that we could do structurally to make this move,” he said.

Not new, but intense

Louise Walker, executive director of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, notes Squamish has been suffering from labour challenges for several years.

The chamber surveyed its members at the start of 2022 and found that nearly 70% of respondents stated they had experienced challenges recruiting or retaining staff over the last year.

The biggest challenges stated were lack of applicants in general, lack of affordable housing to rent and the cost of living, according to Walker.

How are businesses surviving?

In order to attract staff, Walker said some businesses offer flexible hours, staff housing and increased benefits.

“But as a community of small, if not micro, businesses, we have to be cautious that an increase in the cost of doing business can have an unintended consequence of adding to the cost of living,” Walker said in an emailed statement.

 “Small businesses have faced a turbulent two years and are now faced with a multitude of increased costs, such as fuel, rent and tax, at a time when they need to focus on recovery.”

When tracking business sentiment, Chamber members have reported a positive shift since 2020, Walker added, but are not back to pre-pandemic levels.

“When looking to the future, the majority of businesses are optimistic — 74%, an increase from 68% in 2020i. Now we need to focus on business recovery and remove any barriers to growth,” she said.

The downtown core

Kerry Neil, executive director of the Downtown Squamish BIA reports that many of its member businesses in downtown Squamish have reported staff shortages.

“So much so that one business had mentioned to me just yesterday that they are opening on a day-by-day basis,” Neil told The Squamish Chief in an email.

“COVID-19 still plays a huge role in the labour shortage, as does affordability to live here, and the ongoing Sea to Sky transit strike does not help with getting workers from A to B,” she added.  

She said the Downtown Squamish BIA, Squamish Chamber, and Tourism Squamish had joined forces to recommend integrated solutions to the transit strike at municipal and provincial levels.

“Working together, we can increase the value of Squamish as a destination for staff as well,” she said.  

Neil said that the federal budget included positive news about expanding the temporary foreign worker program.

This could help to address the labour market needs for those in the hospitality, restaurant, and accommodation industries. It would be helpful if the federal government also extends the term of temporary workers,” she said.  

She said the many businesses are being “extremely flexible” and are offering more hours to current employees and continuously posting their available jobs on social media.

“We recently supported our members by sharing a “job vacancies’ list on the DSBIA social platforms,” she said.

Businesses are offering the best wages they can, Neil said, but she wonders if the wages can ever be high enough in a town where housing has become unaffordable for so many.  

“The lack of childcare spaces in Squamish means a large demographic of parents are unable to work,” she added.

“And while the research shows that ending government wage subsidies had little to no impact on employment, the subsidies have enabled many to re-train and look at working situations that have higher wages outside of the service industry.”

Help available for business

The Squamish Chamber of Commerce offers a range of affordable training for staff, Walker said.

The chamber is also hosting workshops in June to provide insight into the options for immigration and newcomers to Canada. Squamish businesses can also post job opportunities on the Squamish Chamber’s Facebook jobs group.

“We continue to advocate with different levels of government, ensuring there is awareness of the challenges facing the business community,” Walker said.

The personal is political

In addition to being a politician, Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy is also a business owner, running North Arm Farm in Pemberton.

He calls the current labour situation a “big crisis” and echoes what others have said: that the solutions to be found are with housing and transportation.

“Can you imagine what Whistler would be like if Whistler didn’t have a housing solution that they’d been pursuing for the last 30 years,” he said. “I think the development of the housing authority for Squamish is a positive step.”

He said employee-specific housing should be a priority for all communities in the corridor.

Increasing wages is likely something businesses are doing, but if housing is affordable, folks can live within their means, he noted.

“I think employees are happy enough as long as they can spend 30% of their income on housing or 35% on housing, then that’s kind of the number right? But that’s not what’s happening. So either rents need to come down, or wages need to go up. If wages go up, the prices have to go up. Ultimately, the consumer pays.”

Wearing his business-owner hat, Sturdy said his advice for the busy summer season is for fellow business owners to scale their businesses the best way they can.

Figure out what is realistic and focus on doing that well and letting everything else go, for now, he said.

It is something he is doing at North Arm Farm as well.

“We’re cutting back; we’re focusing on essential...and making sure we can do that, and everything else disappears. So, accept that you’re not going to get — certainly in the customer service areas — you’re just not going to get the same kind of reviews that you had hoped to get,” he said.

As for other solutions, Sturdy said there needs to be a clearer understanding of how COVID has impacted the labour force, specifically in Squamish and the corridor. Who has left the workforce early or altogether, and what that means to the broader situation? He would like to see more granular information on what is happening, in other words.

He believes this will be a rough summer, but that things will get better with time.

“Let’s get through this summer because I think this summer is going to be very, very challenging. But I think as time goes on, we will come back to some sort of balance.”

The federal government will catch up on the holiday working visas that haven’t been processed, he said and that will bring some much-needed labour by next winter.

Federal response

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told The Squamish Chief immigration is more important than ever to help keep the economy flowing.

“Our strong economic growth is now outpacing the ability of the economy to find workers. We need to make sure that we utilize Canada’s position as the top destination of choice for global talent and ensure that businesses and employers have access to the skilled workers they need to grow and succeed,” the spokesperson said.

Two work permit programs provide options for employers in any industry who are seeking to hire a foreign national:

•The Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program is designed to allow employers in Canada to hire foreign workers when no Canadians or permanent residents are available.

• The International Mobility Program, which includes International Experience Canada (IEC), or working holiday visas.

The IECs are not designed to fill labour market shortages. The spokesperson said.

While part of the International Mobility Program, IEC is based on bilateral youth mobility agreements between Canada and its 36 partner countries that set out the terms, including age and duration limits, under which Canadian and foreign youth can work and travel in each other’s countries. Canada could not unilaterally change these terms, the spokesperson said in response to the question about changing the duration and age limits to the program.

Employment and Social Development Canada told The Squamish Chief that to help Squamish businesses, the Government of Canada co-delivers job matching services with the provincial government through the Job Bank website (available jobs near Squamish BC on Job Bank). All jobs advertised by Squamish businesses on Job Bank, are sent via email alerts to unemployed locals who have applied for EI benefits due to job loss. “This helps unemployed workers connect with employers to help minimize staffing shortages,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

 While the spokesperson pointed to regional data on unemployment rates, stats were not available specific to Squamish or the Sea to Sky.

The federal government also noted that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is designed to be responsive to changes in the labour market, and enables local employers to fill labour and skills shortages on a temporary basis, when residents aren’t available to fill those roles.”Since 2020, the Government of Canada has taken measures to improve the program’s flexibility and reduce the administrative burden for employers,” the spokesperson said.

Further, on April 4, the federal government announced the TFW Program Workforce Solutions Road Map.

As part of these policy changes, Accommodation and Food Services (NAICS 72) is one of seven sectors for which the cap on the proportion of Low Wage TFWs will be increased to 30% for a period of one year. All other sectors will benefit from a cap of 20%, which is an increase for most employers who use the Low Wage stream.

Among other initiatives, the recent federal budget also included a new Trusted Employer Model that reduces red tape for employers, the spokesperson noted.

What is the district doing?

In terms of addressing the pressing housing issue in town, the District says that the Squamish Community Housing Society (SCHS) is in the process of recruiting its board of directors and executive director and will be operational this year.

District spokesperson Rachel Boguski noted that there are 76 new affordable units that will become available at Spirit Creek Apartments on Buckley Avenue, with folks moving in this summer.   

In the next two years, SCHS units will include affordable rental units from Community Amenity Contributions (CAC) contributed by developers, such as 55 units from the SEAandSKY project and two units at the Wilfred on Dowad Drive.

There are an additional 62 units of affordable housing at the permitting stage.

The District has also identified land on which it can partner with the SCHS and or BC Housing on a future project. Over 380 units of purpose-built rental are also either built, under construction or at permitting.

All of the District’s affordable housing units collected as CACs and administered by the District will have the requirement that residents are to have lived in Squamish for a minimum of one year and must be locally employed.

This requirement will apply to all affordable housing units owned or operated by the District. This requirement is captured in its Perpetually Affordable Housing Policy.

The District is open to public-private proposals for the development of community workforce housing.

Boguski added that the District is also negotiating the allocation of new affordable housing units specifically for early childhood educators in new projects with childcare facilities.

“We are focusing on ways to address employment space viability and availability through our economic development initiatives, due to the land and development constraints felt by almost all sectors in Squamish,” she added.

The District of Squamish Economic Development website hosts a variety of content and resources aimed to help employers attract and retain staff, Boguski said.

The department also works one-on-one with employers to support workforce development, providing information on available programs and services, including funding support.

In addition, the District partners with local organizations in the delivery of events and training that support workforce attraction and retention including hiring fairs, information sessions, and networking events. 

*Please note, this story has been updated to note that the federal spokesperson later came back to The Squamish Chief to say Sea to Sky EI stats are not available.

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