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Unhappy campers: staff shortages loom for B.C. campground, hotel, tourist attraction operators

Cost of living, temporary foreign worker restrictions, housing shortages among the reasons cited for a dearth of tourism industry workers in the province this year
Eddie Wood, owner of Sea to Sky Park Services: hiring summer workers has been especially difficult this year | Photo: Rob Kruyt

B.C. tourism operators are facing a campground, hotel and tourist attraction staff crunch.

“We’re finding that there isn’t the supply of staff that there has been in previous years,” said Eddie Wood, owner of Sea to Sky Park Services. “Partly the issue seems to be cost of living in these regions.”

Wood, the operator of several BC Parks campgrounds in the Sea to Sky area and Fraser Valley, said he’s still trying to find around 20 people to fill positions that range from fee collection and park rules enforcement to cleaning and maintenance.

Kirby Brown, general manager for Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, is looking to hire 15 more staff for the summer season, while Mike Barker, manager of Manning Park Resort, is short 15 to 20 people.

“I hear this is one of the worst years ever in terms of hiring people,” said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne. “There’s a labour shortage for sure.”

Go2HR, a resource for B.C.’s tourism industry, has predicted the coming crunch for several years because of demographic trends.

“We’re seeing 4,000 fewer kids graduating from high school,” said Debbie Yule, Go2HR’s vice-president of labour market strategy. Traditionally, young people make up one-third of tourism employees.

With the low Canadian dollar, tourism is booming in B.C. But when businesses go looking for more young workers, Yule said, they’re not there.

Tighter restrictions on the temporary foreign worker program instituted in 2014 are still having an echo effect. Chefs and cooks are in especially short supply.

And whether it’s Tofino or Squamish, the lack of housing for summer staff is another challenge, say employers and the mayors of the tourism-dependent B.C. towns.

“Any time you have a housing shortage, you often have a labour shortage at the lower end of the pay scale,” said Patricia Heintzman, mayor of Squamish.

Her town has been going through a building boom, and Heintzman hopes new housing and condo developments, scheduled to be completed in the next one to four years, will help alleviate the housing shortage.

The municipality, which has formed an affordable housing task force, is working with BC Housing on some projects and offers incentives for laneway homes and secondary suites.

In Tofino, whose population grew by 200 people between 2011 and 2015, new multi-family units are being built – but they won’t be rental. The west coast Vancouver Island town is now looking at options such as making municipally-owned land available to developers to build rental housing.

Osborne noted that some larger Tofino resorts already offer staff housing on site – but that’s not an option for a mom-and-pop restaurant.

Wood is increasing on-site staff housing at some campgrounds: he has bought three extra camping trailers to supplement existing staff housing and has considered building a bunkhouse at a cost of around $50,000. The business has also raised hourly starting wages to $14 from $12.

Sea to Sky Gondola has been focusing on recruiting high school students and has increased the hours of a free shuttle service so it’s easier for young people who don’t own a car to get to work. The business also makes an effort to offer more competitive wage rates, with a starting wage of $12.50 an hour, and flexible scheduling.

A bright spot for Manning Park Resort, where hourly wages range from $11 to $24, has been young workers from New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom who are in Canada on working holiday visas, Barker said.

But he wonders why it’s been so difficult to entice young people from nearby Hope and Chilliwack.

Despite the best efforts of employers, however, the overall cost of living across the Lower Mainland is proving at times to be a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

“We had a guy lined up to come out of Kelowna as our executive sous-chef with a very competitive wage, plus a transition package to get him here,” Brown said, “and he found at the end of the day it was still too expensive to move into the Lower Mainland with his family from the Interior.” •