BOW VALLEY – The latest labour numbers are in, and they tell the story of a staffing drought influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and changing work expectations of employees.
Seasonal staffing challenges have existed for decades in the Bow Valley, but this year, those seasonal challenges have become a year-round problem due to the pandemic.
“We have always had a shortage of staff of five or 10 per cent. Now we are 30 per cent and it has been like that since last summer,” said Michel Dufresne, the director of the Job Resource Centre. “It is really an acute staff shortage, and we are calling it a staff drought.”
Unemployment numbers for the region have improved, falling from 9.9 per cent in January 2021 to 5.3 per cent in January 2022 but those numbers are misleading. The Banff-Jasper-Rocky Mountain House region includes Grande Prairie, skewing the numbers of the Bow Valley as a result.
“You have to take it with a grain of salt. It is really not a Banff unemployment rate,” Dufresne said.
The labour shortage the area is experiencing is magnified by federal delays in processing temporary foreign worker applications from places such as Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. In the summer, foreign workers account for one-third of the labour pool for Banff.
Workers from Ontario and Quebec are also not arriving in the numbers seen in previous years.
“It is just a trickle of them. We don’t know why that is,” Dufresne said. “We are going to make some inquiries. We aren’t Stats Canada; all we know is they aren’t here.”
Last summer, businesses coped with the smaller pool of staff by reducing operating hours, offering limited menus, or even closing for a day or two each week.
“For the last year, the shortage of staff has been a problem. This winter, the big employers in Banff have been looking for staff for the summer,” Dufresne said. “This year, same thing, using the traditional methods of recruitment, and the numbers are down significantly. This summer staffing is not looking good so far.”
The shortage has caused the market for staff to become highly competitive, causing wages to trend upwards, with companies offering extra perks for staff.
“It is so competitive now. The HR people are responsible for rate of pay but they have been asking management and ownership more and more about paying more,” Dufresne said. “Now, they are coming back to us and jobs that were paying $18 [per hour] are paying $20 or $21. It is definitely going upwards.”
Perks offered by various places include retention bonuses, subsidized housing, free meals, professional development, staff advancement and more health benefits.
The pandemic has also caused many people to seek a better work-life balance, along with employment that provides them with more options.
Until more people arrive for employment, businesses in the area can expect the staff drought to continue as the peak tourist season arrives.
“People have taken stock and reflected on their lives and have had time to do some career exploration,” Dufresne said. “They have moved on from the industry. That is not going to be changing. We don’t know where the people are right now.”