Larra Daley holds a wheel of cheese at her tiny shop in Horwood’s Mall in Whitehorse on Dec. 14. Retaining staff throughout the busy tourism months has been a challenge for Daley and several other Whitehorse businesses. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Yukon’s tourism industry hunts for solutions to staffing shortages

‘It’s a real challenge, not just in the Yukon but all over the country right now’

Rhiannon Russell | Special to the News

In May, Ben Mercier started hiring rental agents and detailing staff for Driving Force’s Whitehorse location—15 in all. A couple of those new employees quit in June, and a few more quit the following month—a total of six—during the company’s busiest time of year.

“It’s been very challenging,” said Mercier, Driving Force’s area manager for northern British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories.

“Some of them found government jobs. It’s impossible for this industry and for this pay scale to compete with government jobs.”

Mercier has been trying to hire replacements, though he hasn’t had much luck, especially so late in the season. Remaining staff are working overtime and, this week, the company sent up another employee from the Fort St. John branch to help.

This kind of staffing shortage doesn’t come as news to Blake Rogers, executive director of Tourism Industry Association (TIA) Yukon. Finding and retaining workers is one of the biggest difficulties the industry is dealing with in the territory, he said. He’s heard this repeatedly from TIA’s members, which include hotels, eateries, and tour companies.

“It’s a real challenge, not just in the Yukon but all over the country right now,” Rogers said.

“In some places, it’s getting to almost crisis levels… One of the things that we hear all the time is to make tourism successful, it comes down to marketing, access, and product or experiences. But staffing is definitely the fourth pillar of that. Because if you don’t have staff to run things, then you’re looking at reducing hours and stretching things to almost a breaking point.”

According to the 2017 Yukon Business Survey, 46 per cent of the territory’s job vacancies were in the sales and services sector.

There are a few likely reasons for this. For one, the Yukon’s unemployment rate is at a record low. “It’s a good thing overall for Yukon to have so many people working, but it makes it pretty tough to try to find people locally (to hire),” said Rogers. He also points to the allure of high-paying government jobs, something small businesses can’t match.

Larra Daley, owner of Cultured Fine Cheese in Whitehorse, has experienced challenges hiring, too. She works at the shop full-time, and currently has one full-time employee. “In a perfect scenario, we would have someone else working a minimum of three days a week,” she said. “We’ve been down that (person) for most of the summer.”

Daley said she’s had some great applicants, but they were either just looking for short-term summer work or found full-time opportunities.

In a few months, she’ll be expanding to a larger space in Horwoods Mall, where her shop is currently located. With that comes additional staffing needs. “You’re so vulnerable with growth,” she said. “Sometimes you need to grow a business to be sustainable, but you also aren’t sustainable if you don’t have staff to maintain that. ”

A lack of job applicants has been a problem for Sherry Blake, general manager of Westmark Whitehorse Hotel. When this happens, extra shifts are offered to existing staff. “This year, we’ve seen an increase in overtime for sure,” she said of the busy summer months.

Part of the reason for this, she thinks, is the cool start to the season, which has now packed a typical four- or five-month tourism period into three months.

“I think a lot of people probably postponed their trips or waited until it got a bit nicer,” Blake said.

“We’re running a much higher occupancy and I think that hotel rooms and tours and restaurants are at capacity. It’s easier when you’re only doing 60 per cent of your table turnover, or 60 per cent of rooms, to get away with less staff. But when you’re running 100 per cent, you have no option but to service all those tables or clean all those rooms.”

Both Blake and Rogers are trying to come up with solutions to the problem. Blake chairs TIA’s tourism recruitment retention and training committee, formed in March of this year.

“In every meeting or every strategic plan we’re looking at, it comes up from all operators,” she said. This year, the Westmark and Yukon College started a pilot project that saw the hotel recruit three to four out-of-town students for summer jobs, then pay for empty dorm rooms at the college to house them. Blake acknowledges lack of housing is often an issue.

Rogers said the committee is also considering working with colleges and universities in southern Canada to promote the Yukon as a destination for tourism jobs.

“I think that there’s an opportunity for campaigns or whatnot, trying to bring people from other parts of the country, other parts of the world, to work here,” Rogers said. “There’s a number of careers that are amazing… The main thing is to be proactive about it.”

This is something Mercier is thinking about, too. Over the winter, he plans to work with Driving Force’s human resources department to find ways to improve recruitment. One idea he has is bringing over staff from Europe on a temporary basis to work in the Yukon during the summer, when the company is busiest.

Contact Yukon News at editor@yukon-news.com

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