Labour shortages are as common in Banff as an elk sighting, says Michel Dufresne.
That’s especially true now that tourists are returning to the mountain park area after two gruelling years of pandemic and restrictions, said the director of the Job Resource Centre in Banff and Canmore.
“There’s always a shortage of workers, but now what we see is a staff drought,” said Dufresne. “I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With a limited local labour pool, the Bow Valley tourist area has traditionally depended on workers from Australia, Europe and Eastern Canada. But when COVID-19 throttled international tourism, those workers moved on and have been slow to return, said Dufresne.
“We lost those people at the beginning of the pandemic but that was OK. That 50 per cent reduction in the workforce reflected the 50 per cent reduction in business,” he said, adding it’s a problem across the country.
“But now two years later, restrictions have lifted and those workers are not coming back.”
A working holiday visa program launched in December that many expected to bear fruit hasn’t, he said.
The area is short 1,000 to 2,000 workers, said Dufresne, impacting seasonal businesses such as retail, hotels and restaurants, along with local and federal governments.
Some employers have begun to offer higher pay, but working conditions and often crowded living arrangements can be obstacles to hiring.
The operator of the 54-year-old Grizzly House said he’s particularly short-staffed in the back of his restaurant.
“I’ve done 40 hours as a dishwasher this week,” said Francis Hopkins. “The shortage of entry-level hospitality workers is severe.”
Hopkins said he offers competitive wages and affordable staff accommodations, “but I’m not really sure if that makes a difference at all.”
Some hotels, he said, are offering free accommodation to attract workers, while many employers dangle “quality of lifestyle” benefits like free ski and golf passes.
Many workers have drifted away to take on new pursuits, said Meesh Souliere, general manager of Banff Avenue Brewing Co.
“A lot of people went back to school during the pandemic, that’s really been a thing,” she said.
Her restaurant is short on management and kitchen staff, though that’s not unusual for Banff, said Souliere.
She said that’s a situation facing many establishments that haven’t seen the usual return of working holiday visa holders.
“We usually get a lot more of those, but we’re starting to see that now,” said Souliere.
This is all happening at a time when Banff seems to be returning to a more normal summer tourist season.
“Though we can still definitely use more international travellers. We’re seeing lots of Canadians and Americans coming.”
In the last few months, the Banff area workforce has been down 20 to 40 per cent of what’s needed, though university students are now beginning to arrive, said Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association.
“But in late July, early August, we see a huge, unmitigated exodus of talent, people wanting to travel before going back to school,” he said.
The industry, he said, hasn’t recovered since suffering an unprecedented blow two years ago.
“How could you ever predict 80 per cent of the (staff) would be gone in 10 days … People were promised shifts they didn’t get, were beaten down mentally and left,” said Reeder.
“We were the first affected and last to recover.”
One way to ensure a more stable temporary foreign workforce is to grant the hospitality industry the same time- and money-saving application exemptions given to the agriculture sector, said Reeder.
“But the bottom line is, we’ve got to build a bigger (domestic) talent pipeline. We’ve got to convince Canadian kids they can grow into these hospitality positions and become entrepreneurs.”