A group of Columbia Valley and Radium Chamber of Commerce members met last week to discuss the valley’s ongoing tourism sector staffing shortage and potential solutions to it along with representatives from the local College of the Rockies, the Columbia Valley Employment Centre, Invest Kootenay and the Kootenay Workforce Steering Committee.
In talking about current workforce issues at the Friday, October 2nd meeting, the dozen or so members at the meeting touched on a number of recurring themes, highlighting particular concern around issues with transportation, affordable accommodation for staff, a lack of local students applying for seasonal and part-time jobs, and several unfilled good paying full-time jobs.
Few, if any, of the job vacancies discussed pay minimum wage and many pay between $15 and $20 per hour.
To help with recruiting seasonal tourism staff for the valley, Chamber executive director Susan Clovechok suggested that the Chamber could have a representative attending the spring College of the Rockies job fair in Cranbrook.
“For many of our small businesses, you can’t afford to take a day off work and go down to Cranbrook to talk to students about the possibility of working for you,” said Ms. Clovechok “But it could be helpful for the Chamber to put a small delegation together to represent all Chamber businesses. Chamber members would need to provide details about the positions and there might have to be a small fee to cover costs.”
Ms. Clovechok added that it might also be worthwhile to consider sending a representative to other university and college job fairs elsewhere around the country, particularly to Ontario where there are a large number of post-secondary school students looking for work each summer.
“Communication is critical. We need to communicate what we have here, to let young people know that you can come here and have a great summer, get good work experience and make some money for the school year,” said Ms. Clovechok, adding she talked to one university student working in the valley this summer who said that if she had realized what a great summer she was in for, she easily could have convinced five or six of her friends to come to the valley to work as well.
“The question is how do we attract the workforce we need,” said Ms.Clovechok. “As a valley, we are working on branding and marketing strategies in part to extend our busy summer season into the shoulder season. But if our tourism operations and other related businesses don’t have the staff they need, then it doesn’t matter how many extra visitors we bring here if we can’t deliver the services those visitors expect.”
Several Chamber members proposed some novel solutions to the accommodation issue. Do Nothing Floatation Centre and juice bar owner Meredith Hackler suggested looking at working out house sitting arrangements with second homeowners, or setting up a Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) style eco-retreat where summer tourism workers could stay for free or for low rent in return for doing a couple of hours of work a day at the retreat. The workers would then have ample time and opportunity during the rest of the day to work at other businesses in the valley.
“It’s different and progressive and would put Invermere on a whole new map,” said Ms. Hackler.
Chamber president Amanda Robinson suggested speaking to First Nations administration regarding the possibility of building staff housing. Several other members chimed in with the idea of converting the closed motels in Radium Hot Springs into affordable staff accommodations.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was mentioned several times, with some Chamber members lamenting that not much can be done to resurrect it (at least for unskilled workers) here in the East Kootenay.
“Our unemployment rate impacts our access to that program and we have nine percent unemployment in the Kootenay region,” said Ms. Clovechok.
Other members at the discussion raised the idea of looking to Alberta to find staff.
“Alberta’s facing a 0.7 per cent increase in unemployment and Calgary is only three hours away from us. We need to look at that,” said College of the Rockies Campus manager Doug Clovechok.
Ms. Hackler said that was a strategy that worked for her this summer, as she brought in three employees from Calgary.
The College of the Rockies has been in discussions with Columbia Valley Tourism members about the possibility of creating a full-time tourism hospitality program.
“Students involved in such a program would make exceptional seasonal and part time staff for local businesses” said Mr. Clovechok.
The need for such a program here in the valley was also brought to the attention of the college during its recent strategic planning process.