Businesses struggle with labour shortages, bosses pitch in on frontlines

The labour crisis that has held Greater Victoria in its grip for the last several years shows no signs of abating, and continues to force company executives and business owners to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty on the front lines.

“It’s definitely all hands on deck,” said Al Hasham, owner of Maximum Express Courier.

Hasham, who employs 35 people between his offices in Victoria and Vancouver, said he’s short as many as five employees right now. With the busiest time of year approaching, he is constantly looking for part-time and evening workers to pick up the slack.

That has meant Hasham has been on the road a lot, delivering packages for Maximum clients as well as overflow from Amazon and Purolator. In between, he’s personally looking after the company’s overall operation.

“The last few years it’s been tough,” Hasham said. The company has asked some full-time, permanent staff to take on additional weekend and evening work that would normally be farmed out to part-time and casual staff. “It really is all hands on deck ... we have to do whatever we can, but everyone is hurting.”

Hotel Grand Pacific general manager Reid James is no stranger to loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves as he and his executives have had to pitch in and clean rooms and take on other front-line tasks wherever necessary. This year, facing the prospect of another banner visitation year, Hotel Grand Pacific managed to hire early and retain enough staff to handle the crush of tourists at the height of summer. Other properties have not been so fortunate, James said.

“People are doing more with less,” said James. “At some smaller properties, I know managers who are cleaning rooms and bussing tables.”

James said the Hotel Grand has been forced to operate most of this year without a full complement of staff. At its best, the hotel had six vacant positions.

“I’ve heard of some places where the vacant positions are double that, and some larger hotels where it’s as high as 40 positions,” James said.

“We continue to struggle with the more skilled positions like the kitchen and in some areas like bellmen and guest services,” he said. “The good ones are hard to find and to keep.”

Victoria businesses have been feeling the squeeze for some time.

The regional economy has hummed along for the last several years, and Victoria has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. In October, it remained at 3.9 per cent, the second-lowest unemployment rate, behind only Guelph at 3.3 per cent.

Despite solid net migration numbers to the province (in 2017 B.C. had a net gain of 20,000 people, 5,000 of those coming from other provinces), economic growth and demand for workers has continued to outstrip the labour supply.

“Right now there is a real war for talent,” said Frank Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting, which works on human resources issues. “At the higher-paid professions, it’s not that bad. But in Victoria where there’s a construction boom and we have a burgeoning tech sector, it’s brutal.”

Bourree said the problem is the demographic mix, not just in Victoria but across Canada.

“Growing economies like Canada and the U.S. have an aging population, while countries like Spain and France have a much younger population. Spain has something like 40 per cent youth unemployment right now,” he said.

Bourree said Victoria will have to continue to encourage older workers to remain in the workforce longer and tap into younger workers over the age of 15 to a greater degree. “And we can work on more in-migration from other provinces.” He noted that it falls to the federal government to act. “The feds opened up 40,000 more spaces for immigration this year with new programs, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need across the country.”

The province’s recently released labour outlook study showed there will be 903,000 job openings between now and 2028, including the creation of 288,000 new jobs due to economic growth.

The study also revealed while most of the job openings would be in the Lower Mainland, 17 per cent would be on Vancouver Island, meaning 153,820 job openings.

“While we do have a shortage, this isn’t a Victoria problem, this isn’t a tech problem. This is a global problem in the technology industry at least,” said Dan Gunn, chief executive of the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council.

Gunn said the Victoria tech sector’s growth has outpaced its labour pool. It posted 30 per cent growth over the last four years.

“As a result, our companies are having to look far and wide to find the talent they need to keep up with the opportunities in front of them,” he said.

One arrow in the tech sector’s quiver could be a planned road show involving VIATEC, the City of Victoria and the South Island Prosperity Project, which early in 2019 intends to tour Western Canada to entice tech workers to the Island.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi led a similar tour to Vancouver recently to entice workers from the mainland to head to Alberta, highlighting the fact the labour shortage is not isolated to B.C.

“The nice thing is we can compete in many ways with our quality of life and cost of living, which in Victoria is quite low for the character and quality of life it offers on a global scale,” said Gunn.

But it can be a tougher sale when some workers are looking at the relative cost of living and working on the Prairies.

Rory Kulmala, chief executive of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, said that cost, housing availability and affordability makes it hard to compete for skilled trades.

Kulmala said the shortage of labour may have slowed the pace of building in the region, but “I believe we have punched above our weight.”

“Despite all that, we seem to be getting things done. There always seems to be another crane gong up,” he said. “The sector seems to have aligned itself to the tempo of how to work in this busy environment.”

The construction sector still sees value in continuing its work to reach high school students early to get them to consider a career in the trades.

There is plenty of room for growth in that area, as Kulmala notes only one in 70 students chooses to go into the trades.

Go to the Times Colonist to read the article.

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