A sign on the door of the Dirty Northern Public House in Whitehorse on July 12, apologizes for cancelling lunch so the staff they have can focus on evening services. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Help Wanted: Yukon businesses struggle due to labour shortage

There are lots of jobs, but where are the workers?

A quick trip to the grocery store, lunch at a favourite restaurant or in line at the post office — the signs are quite literally all there: Help Wanted.

And those signs all point to a labour shortage that’s been the subject of discussion, overtime hours and changing business plans this summer throughout the territory.

“It’s the number one issue for just about every business organization,” Tammy Beese, chair of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, said in a July 11 interview.

The other big issue is housing.

“They go hand-in-hand,” Beese said.

If potential workers don’t have an affordable place to live they’re not going to come to the Yukon.

In March, representatives with the chamber and other organizations in the territory (Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, TechYukon among others) attended a major job fair in Alberta hoping to draw potential workers to the territory.

With many Yukoners who have friends and family in Alberta, there’s the possibility those interested in working in the Yukon could stay with friends or family when they arrive, Beese explained.

While Beese is planning to look into whether the Yukon presence at the job fair resulted in anyone coming here for work, she said it’s clear the territory is now on the radar for many Albertans.

Until the housing issue is dealt with though there will continue to be a labour shortage, Beese suggested, adding the government could open up more land to help address the issue.

Similarly, officials with the Dawson chamber said most businesses in the community’s downtown feature Help Wanted signs.

Labour shortages in other regions of the country are also having an impact here.

“Operators from every part of Canada are struggling with this, and in certain regions it’s an especially dire situation,” said Blake Rogers, executive director of the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon.

“The lack of housing is a particular factor in communities like Dawson, where options are sparse.”

Ueli Kuenzi, a member of the Dawson chamber, said of her community: “It’s a chain reaction. People are hunting for good, well-paying jobs — there is a lot in and around town, which means that mostly the lower end jobs are affected, like housekeepers, store workers, door staff at bars, cooks and surprisingly even serving jobs”

Robin Anderson, the territory’s global marketing manager, said the Department of Tourism and Culture has heard from numerous tourism operators about the labour shortage.

The territory is working on action plans to achieve the goals outlined in the tourism plan for the territory. One of the top priorities is the recruitment, training and retention of workers, he said. No timeline has been set for the action plan to deal with tourism labour issues, but Anderson said it is high on the to-do list.

There are already federal and territorial initiatives like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Yukon Nominee Program, which allow employers to bring in staff from other countries, but those programs aren’t always the right fit.

Lee Willitt is a co-owner at both the Burnt Toast Cafe in Whitehorse and the Cut Off Restaurant at the Carcross Cutoff and has struggled to find kitchen staff for both restaurants.

The number of resumes coming in from students for summer work was minimal.

Both she and Shannon Corrado, who owns the Cut Off Restaurant with her, say the foreign worker programs that would allow them to bring in staff don’t work well for them.

They would need to find accommodations for workers and given the lack of housing that’s difficult.

Willitt and Corrado often take on the jobs not filled in their restaurants, leaving little time for added work that comes with going through government programs.

That’s an issue many businesses face, Rogers confirmed.

“A common story is that business owners and managers end up having to take on a lot of extra work themselves to make sure that things stay running,” he said.

Willitt said under many programs, workers are only permitted to work one job. With the price of housing, it’s difficult to make ends meet with just one job.

As for restaurants paying better wages, Willitt explained margins are already tight. Increasing wages means increasing prices, which could result in pricing themselves out of business.

Not a lot of people are willing to pay $30 for a burger and fries, she said.

To add to it, businesses find themselves competing with government for employees, and private businesses just don’t have the funds to offer the same wages, Willitt said.

The situation at both restaurants has meant cutting operating hours.

A-1 Delivery is another company that has found itself looking for staff – posting job ads for mechanics and a delivery driver this week.

Kevin Jack, an A-1 staffer, said a few resumes had already come in which still had to be reviewed.

He suggested the population increase in Whitehorse in recent years increases demand for many services, which means more jobs.

At Yukon Brewing, which extends its hours through the summer and hires four additional staffers, president Bob Baxter said the extra positions were able to be filled, but there were fewer resumes submitted than in past summers.

The most recent Stats Canada figures from the first quarter of 2019 show the territory had a total of 735 job vacancies, with the job vacancy rate at 4.3 per cent, second only to B.C. at 4.4 per cent. The lowest job vacancy rate in the country was 1.7 per cent for Newfoundland and Labrador, while the national figure sat at 3.1 per cent.

Most of the vacancies in the Yukon – 260 jobs of the 735 – were in the sales and service industry.

By comparison, in the same period a year earlier, there were 725 job vacancies.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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