The Yukon’s service and tourism industries are facing a dwindling supply of workers this summer, as are boomtowns in Alberta and British Columbia.
But while cities, like Fort McMurray, Alberta, have a lucrative oil patch fuelling worker shortages, the Yukon has no obvious boom industry, leaving many frustrated.
“I’ve been here for 23 years, and I’ve never seen this many jobs available in Whitehorse, or in the Yukon,” said Westmark Whitehorse general manager Heather McIntyre, on Thursday.
“I couldn’t even open my patio this year. I just never had enough employees to do that.”
Ads for 275 summer jobs at Westmark’s Yukon properties were placed in more newspapers than last year, but McIntyre received a piddling response.
“We got a total of 45 applicants,” she said.
During the early ‘90s, McIntyre managed the Westmark in Beaver Creek and received “at least 300 applications” every summer, she said.
Whitehorse’s Northerm Windows is also fighting to find workers through advertising.
“We have several ads, but we’re not getting any responses to them,” said president David Borud.
Northerm is using teenage workers to keep up with orders, but that situation worries Borud.
“They’re going to be leaving to go back to school. We need full-time but we’re getting by with seasonal. The crunch is coming.”
YuWIN, a Whitehorse-based job posting website, has seen a “dramatic increase” in companies placing help-wanted ads compared to last year, said executive director Grant Bossenberry.
For the past five years, YuWIN has averaged about 60 to 80 job ads per month.
In May 2006, YuWIN had 281 job postings compared to only 108 in May 2005.
In June the website had 242 postings, compared to 82 postings last June.
“We are in a situation here that we’ve never seen before,” said Bossenberry.
The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce is hearing concerns about labour from businesses in the city, said president Rick Karp.
“We know that there’s an issue and a problem. We’re just starting now to look at what we can do,” said Karp.
What is causing
The main culprit could be a small expansion in the goods-producing sector of the Yukon economy, said Yukon Bureau of Statistics director, Gary Ewert.
“You are, in fact, witnessing a boom of a kind here, but not a big, big boom, ” said Ewert.
There are currently more goods-producing sector jobs in the Yukon than at any time since 1991, he said.
“In the olden days, we referred to the goods-producing sector as the wealth-producing sector. It stimulates job growth in the service sector.”
Construction jobs are accounting for the biggest increases, said Ewert.
But available stats don’t paint a very clear picture, he conceded.
“I know that (goods-producing sector increases) spin off, but I can’t tell you where it’s been,” he said.
In June 2006, the Yukon labour force was 16,500 people strong, with 15,600 of them employed. One year earlier, the numbers were similar, with a workforce of 16,800 and 15,700 people working.
More information from Statistics Canada on the number of jobs, not people, will better explain the situation, said Ewert.
A publication based on the additional data — which shows “surprising trends” — is to be released by the Yukon bureau in the coming week, he said.
Many feel the oil patch in Alberta and BC is the problem.
“The oil patch and resource-sector economy is swallowing up all the labour and they can certainly pay a lot more than we can,” said Borud.
There is “no question” Alberta and BC are drawing people out of the Yukon, added Ewert.
“Alberta is a tremendous draw. You can earn $20 plus an hour working at the Tim Hortons or the 7-11 in Fort McMurray,” he said.
In the last five years, Alberta has eclipsed BC and Ontario as the main destination for Yukoners to emigrate to, added Ewert.
Alberta and BC companies are now using YuWIN to recruit workers.
“We’ve seen a real increase in that. We are receiving big time competition from job ads across Canada,” said Bossenberry.
There are several postings for jobs in Fort McMurray, and about five per cent of the ads on YuWIN are from Outside the territory, he added.
Some feel the shrinking number of summer students heading to the Yukon is causing the crisis.
“They don’t seem to be coming. I believe there were much higher numbers years ago and I don’t know why,” said McIntyre.
Australian students still arrive North of 60, but too often come in the winter when service industries don’t need extra workers, she added.
Students come to the Yukon when university ends in April, work during May, June and July, then holiday during August, said Karp.
“There are a number of reasons for (shortages) to happen in August,” he said.
The dearth of workers is causing some Yukon businesses to cut services.
And some worry financial losses loom in the future.
This summer, Westmark had only enough employees to run its main dining room in Whitehorse.
Not only did the hotel’s patio never open, its gift shop was closed on several occasions because of staff shortages, said McIntyre.
“I believe that this situation will become a major problem down the road if it isn’t addressed. It’s getting tougher, even in the wintertime to find workers,” she said.
“Retail is fighting hotels, hotels are fighting retail — we’re all trying to get those few employees who are out there.”
Bourd is also worried about the financial implications of the shortage.
“It’s very tough when you go out, find all these markets, expand your business, only to find that now we’re hit with labour shortages,” said Borud.
“How do we fill the orders that we campaigned so long to get?”
to the shortage
Some companies are raising wages to entice applicants.
The Westmark has raised pay in the hotel’s “hardest hit areas” by a dollar an hour, and is looking at raising salaries across the board.
“If you look at the ads right now, you will see that some hotels are paying much higher than any of us had been paying even a year ago,” said McIntyre.
Pay is only one tool for building a company’s workforce.
A new program from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada aims to bring foreign workers from developing countries into entry-level jobs in Canada.
Borud has an application for four workers through the program.
“We’re trying to see if there would be any workers outside of Canada who would be interested in coming to Canada,” he said.
“I don’t see that the foreign worker program is the answer, but it certainly will ease the problem.”
Westmark in the United States recruits employees in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic for summer jobs in Alaska, noted McIntyre.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re having a very busy summer,” she said.
“It should be a good thing, but it’s not when you don’t have the labour to deal with it. It causes the people you do have to work harder and longer. Long-term, that’s dangerous.
“People are going to burn-out,” she said.