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Labour shortages squeezing Yukon businesses

Business owners facing staffing shortages, rising costs, smaller margins and lower productivity
The Bistro on Bennett in Carcross, just one of many Yukon restaurants squeezed by labour shortages. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Is it better to keep an underperforming employee or not have someone in the position at all?

This is a question several Yukon employers have told the News they are having to ask themselves, as the Yukon faces a severe shortage of workers.

“It’s a really unpleasant feeling,” a local business owner said. “I’ve experienced an awareness that, although this employee deserves to be fired, the actual person you’re going to hurt by following through on that, is yourself.

“There is no file folder of other applicants sitting there to get a better person.”

The Yukon Bureau of Statistics reported that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the Yukon for August 2022 is 1.7 per cent. Business owners are feeling it.

“Staffing this year was the worst it’s ever been in terms of difficulty,” said Dustin Davis, owner of the Bistro on Bennett in Carcross.

After receiving only two or three viable candidates (one-tenth of the usual number) through a job board this past winter, Davis took to reading profile pages on Workaway sites to look for people who liked to travel and adventure in the outdoors, or who might have some restaurant experience in their background.

He sent out over 100 emails in the spring in an attempt to entice people to combine work, travel and adventure by working in his restaurant. It worked, but it took an enormous amount of time. He also knew from experience that no hiring really counts until the person actually shows up.

Davis says the shortage in the food industry came about directly from COVID-19, when chefs and skilled staff left the restaurant business for other jobs and didn’t return. This was hard on an industry that has always struggled with staffing and even worse for seasonal restaurants that rely on a transient work force.

“It’s always a challenge being seasonal, because people who are involved in seasonal employment as a way of life are transient. So even if they did a good job for you one year, they’re going to end up taking a job somewhere else doing something else during the winter,” Davis said.

But it’s not just kitchen staff and construction hands that are in short supply. Ads for pharmacists, trades journeymen, financial analysts and geologists are showing up on YuWin, the Yukon’s online bulletin board for job vacancies.

It’s not just in the type of jobs offered, it’s the number of jobs listed each day. The News observed 45 new jobs were posted between Sept. 20 and 22 — 10 or more every day.

The manager of the grocery store in Mayo didn’t have time to talk to the News. With only one cashier on shift, he was needed on the floor. But then, in a timely lull, McGarry Selbee found a moment to talk.

“I usually have 11 to 12 staff and now I’m down to four, and I cannot hire a single person from the community,” Selbee said.

He says all employable people are working for the First Nation or the Yukon government, who offer higher wages. The store has already increased wages from $16 to $20 per hour. All this amongst rising transportation costs, higher prices and diminishing margins.

Selbee used to rely on the Yukon’s nominee program for foreign workers. After three years he said he found the process too cumbersome. He said the applications (which are based on federal government criteria but run through the Yukon’s department of Economic Development) were a lot of work.

Denny Kobayashi, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, says Selbee isn’t the only business operator working long shifts. He says the labour shortage is affecting the bottom line for businesses: they are paying more to attract employees; dealing with rising costs from inflation; seeing smaller profit margins; coping with lower productivity; and now, facing expectations that retail spending will drop.

“It’s turning into a bit of a perfect storm for small business,” he said.

Kobayashi is concerned about the projected capital spending by the Yukon government. He says the Yukon just doesn’t have the labour force to support high levels of government spending on big projects. Already, large government contracts are using labour that the housing industry needs to build homes for more people. He wants money saved for a rainy day.

“We’ve seen the pressure in the construction trades, they’ve been unable to attract workers. And we’re trying to attract them from Outside, but there’s competition for them,” he says.

High demand in Whitehorse also affects rural business owners. Davis says it’s impossible to get the attention of a Whitehorse contractor to travel to a community because they have more than enough work in Whitehorse.

Kobayashi, Davis and Selbee all acknowledged more workers are needed, and in the same breath spoke about the challenge of housing those additional workers.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at