Busi­ness ad­justs to squeeze of re­gion’s labour short­ages

‘There is a real war for ta­lent’ as sev­eral sec­tors do more with fewer peo­ple

Times Colonist - - Business - AN­DREW A. DUFFY

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 high­er­paid 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.

DAR­REN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Van­cou­ver Is­land Con­struc­tion As­so­ci­a­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Roru Kul­mala says de­spite worker short­ages, the sec­tor “seems to have aligned it­self to the tempo of how to work in this busy en­vi­ron­ment.”

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