Building back the workforce: hiring and retention in today’s labour market

    The shortage of skilled employees on the South Island is a longstanding problem that has been sharpened and spread by the pandemic. Solutions include everything from more housing and more workplace respect to quicker recognition of credentials and more training spots.

    Building back the workforce
    Source: Getty Images.

    Pre-pandemic, Greater Victoria had one of Canada’s lowest unemployment rates, at about 3.4 per cent. In late 2021, it sat at around 4.2 per cent. But the numbers aren’t wholly indicative of the challenges being felt by employers.

    In the last 20 months, job vacancies in unexpected fields have opened: lifeguards, accountants, engineers, paramedics, mariners, butchers, truck drivers. In the case of lifeguards, the pandemic deep-sixed training. Immigration cuts have kept foreign butchers out.

    Unprecedented 9-1-1 calls overwhelmed paramedics. But for other occupations, a confluence of factors is playing out, in the process leading to lost revenue, business closures, highly-stressed workers and rising costs.

    Building back the workforceNurses

    Nurses have been dealing with high-stress conditions, brewing for years, but boiling over during the pandemic. 

    “We’re looking down the barrel of a major problem,” says Michael Sandler, executive director of the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC. “The requests for service are far outstripping the service available.” 

    Even before COVID began its destruction, a 2009 study by the Canadian Nurses Association predicted that by 2022, Canada would be short 60,000 nurses. It’s not news that the pandemic forced many nurses to retire early or seek new roles, says Sandler, a registered nurse working on his PhD. 

    “COVID has substantially increased the overall workload and also shone a light on system inadequacies,” he says, citing shortages of protective equipment and ER overloads as major obstacles.

    A solid step would be to hire a chief nursing officer for Canada, who would investigate system-level solutions. 

    “Nurses make up the largest proportion of healthcare providers,” Sandler says. Unlike doctors, they are found in most communities, including remote locations. 

    The work of nurses could also be streamlined by working smarter. To retain nurses, remuneration, benefits and respect should be improved. And to determine why nurses burn out or what is the impact of workplace abuse, credible data has to be collected.

    As for training more nurses, again, it falls into the government’s lap. 

    “To open more spaces, there’s a problem finding clinical locations,” Sandler says. 

    As well, to teach, a PhD is required, but again, the PhDs are “greying out,” so there is a shortage of certified teachers. And training venues are not offering tenure to teachers, so educators are abandoning academia for more lucrative private sector work. It’s a destructive cycle.

    Finally, the role of immigrant nurses becomes somewhat of a loaded question. In B.C., in late 2021, there were about 800 internationally-educated nurses who cannot work until they pass English-language testing and meet entry-level competencies. But as Sandler points out, there’s a nursing shortage all over the world. 

    Engagement vs. experience – advice for employers in a post-pandemic world.

    Things to Consider:
    Workload and systematic pressure.

    ConstructionBuilding back the workforce

    When it comes to finding carpenters, associated trades and even labourers, a longstanding misconception needs to be hammered home. 

    “There’s a stigma about construction,” says Mark Liudzius, executive VP at Kinetic Construction. Liudzius comes from a university-educated family, but went on to become a Red Seal carpenter and Gold Seal project coordinator. 

    “Why is shop a second-grade choice? High school is where promoting this has to start,” says Liudzius. “There’s such a different attitude in Europe. The family plumber is like the family dentist.”

    Changing attitudes is a pipe dream unless the government steps up. As well, government regulations around apprenticeships need to be fixed. But training is one part. 

    “You have to retain them. There has to be a career path,” Liudzius says. 

    A BuildForce Canada report estimates that by 2030, 41,000 construction employees will have retired in B.C., and there will be 35,100 new workers. But between residential construction and large highway, bridge, public transit, education and health care construction, roughly 23,000 more workers will be needed.

    “Companies are losing a lot of senior people,” Liudzius says. In-house development is a priority, but companies are finding they need to recruit, often outside B.C. In fact, Kinetic Construction has hired a full-time recruiter to fill its many job vacancies.

    Kinetic has also had to offer finders’ fees, signing bonuses, career path guidance, in-house mentorships and significant bumps to wages to stay competitive, Liudzius says.

    Accordingly, those employer expenses translate into steadily climbing construction costs, be it for a house or warehouse. And because there are more less-skilled workers on job sites, work that could be done by three workers now requires five, another factor driving up costs. Ironically, when an Alberta or Manitoba carpenter looks at the cost of housing in Greater Victoria, they realize they can’t afford it. 

    “If you are finding people out of province, where do you put them?” Liudzius asks. He’s aware of companies that have bought houses in Victoria to house employees. Other Island businesses in communities such as Campbell River, Gabriola Island, Mayne Island and Tofino have had to shell out for employee housing.

    Things to Consider:
    Removing the stigma associated with the sector and increasing government support for apprenticeships.

    Building back the workforceVeterinarians

    Consider veterinarians. If 100 new vets showed up in B.C., they would all have instant jobs, joining the approximately 1,600 registered vets in the Province. Despite agreement from B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham in 2018 that more training spots at the University of Saskatchewan would be sought, the results have yet to be seen. 

    “We’re not optimistic at all,” says Dr. Al Longair, a vet for 45 years, who works part-time at the Prevost Veterinary Clinic in Duncan. “The shortage is going to take three to five years to fix.” 

    But right now, people bringing their pets for care can wait up to 12 hours for emergency treatment. And securing a regular vet is nearly impossible. 

    “We have to say no,” Longair says.

    The doctor shortage has long been a documented problem in B.C. and much of Canada. Who would have imagined that a lack of professionals, who tend to animal health, would also be dogging pet owners?  

    Some of it comes down to the provincial government refusing to fund more seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, one of only five training venues in Canada. For the last 20 years, B.C. has funded 20 seats per year at the school, despite B.C.’s 25 per cent population growth and the even larger boom in pet ownership. At least 140 qualified applicants apply for those 20 university spots.

    A 2019 market study, done by the Society of BC Veterinarians, found that the shortage will only worsen in the next three years, as about 22 per cent of baby boomer vets check out and the remaining ones work fewer hours in their desire for work-life balance. Burnout is becoming a growing problem for vets.

    “Our job is time consuming,” says Longair, who can work up to 14 hours per day. Not only do vets handle sick animals, they have to deal with pet owners who can become beastly when they get bad news. 

    “It’s not all about cuddly kittens,” Longair says. 

    Things to Consider:
    Increasing education opportunities by making more seats available for students to study veterinary medicine.

    Hospitality Building back the workforce

    The B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association’s (BCRFA) challenges are well documented. Before the pandemic, there was already a shortage of skilled chefs and line staff. In the third quarter of 2019, Restaurants Canada calculated that a record 64,000 vacancies in the country’s foodservice industry led to curtailed business hours or partial services.

    In B.C. alone, the restaurant industry has only 66 per cent of the workers needed to run efficiently, according to the BCRFA’s president/CEO. 

    “There’s a huge shortage in kitchens,” says Ian Tostenson. At least 40,000 more workers are needed in B.C. 

    Pandemic-related effects added to the bottoming out of the bottom line, with 10 per cent of B.C.’s approximately 15,000 restaurants disappearing, coupled with a 20 per cent drop in revenue, Tostenson says. Meanwhile, costs have surged. 

    The swinging door of closing, reopening, closing and uncertainty, in general, due to government dictates around COVID protocols, led to many people leaving the industry. So did the risk, of what suddenly became frontline work, to health and safety. Some moved from the commercial side to institutional settings or chose to retire. Inconsistent incomes and a workplace that discouraged social contact were also cited as negatives, Tostenson notes.

    Some point to the CERB $500-per-week payment delaying the return of workers, draining the employee pool and forcing employers to cast their nets far and wide. But the subsidy saw people taking home less than minimum wage, raising questions about the larger implications of CERB.

    With less spending, due to lockdown measures, came the realization for many that they could live on less. For others, it was enough to supplement the creation of their own revenue streams, or a catalyst to reskill and try a new sector. 

    In February 2020, the BCRFA introduced its Express Entry Foreign Worker Program for those with culinary diplomas or hospitality management. Chefs and managers have been hired from India and the Middle East, says Tostenson.

    Before the pandemic, more than 1,200 international restaurant employees (various capacities) were recruited in 2019–2020. Getting them to B.C. wasn’t a piece of cake. Working with a recruiter, the BCRFA had to prove there were no Canadians available to do each job, which required a labour market opinion. The process can take several months. 

    “We’re working with the provincial government to shorten the time to get immigrants,” Tostenson says. 

    Things to Consider:
    Remuneration and increasing engagement through value-driven employment.

    Building back the workforceEmbracing Immigration

    Jean McRae has worked with immigrants and refugees since 1982, and since 1998 has been CEO of the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) of Greater Victoria. 

    “For immigration to do its job, we need to speed up the process,” she says. 

    Employers who approach the ICA wonder how their workplace vacancies can be efficiently filled given the sluggish system. One example: a company needed an engineer, found one and then waited three years before the employee arrived. The federal government has been slow to respond.

    And thanks to COVID, much catching up is required because for more than one year, immigration ground to a near halt. By late spring 2021, things opened up, McRae says, as people from several countries began arriving in the region. Because statistics are only released annually by the federal government, accurate numbers remain unknown. What is known, is that immigration targets for 2021 were met, but that’s because temporary foreign workers and international students, both groups already in Canada, were accepted.

    McRae did have an estimate for refugee arrivals, guessing that by the end of 2021, about 160 new permanent residents arrived in Greater Victoria, coming mostly from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Because refugees are selected, not for their skills, but for their need for protection, their entry into the workforce may take a long time. Refugees often need to learn English and other employment skills. Immigrants, on the other hand, can often take jobs soon after arrival. Many international students arrive with a student and work visa. Often, after graduating, they remain in Canada. But the pandemic-induced shift to online learning temporarily dried up that work pool.

    When international students returned in the fall, it wasn’t only COVID causing problems. 

    “It’s super hard to find housing,” McRae says. There’s a desperate need for more housing options.

    And everyone’s heard the story about the taxi driver who was a doctor in Pakistan. Not quite an urban myth; McRae knows of a taxi driver who was an accountant and a store owner who was a doctor. 

    “Ethically, it’s a waste of human capital,” she says. 

    But the problem of credential recognition has been around for decades. The process must be accelerated, she says. To fuel labour growth, the spark will be foreign workers. 

    “We do have immigrants looking for work and we encourage employers to contact us about vacancies they have.  We may be able to find a good match,” McRae says.

    The Big Picture

    In Nanaimo, it seems those who either lost hospitality jobs or decided not to return to them have embraced side hustles, says the Chamber of Commerce President, Kim Smythe. From 2020 to the first six months of 2021, the city has issued over 600 business licences.

    “The bulk of those are home businesses,” says Smythe.

    He’s also aware that some Nanaimoites have decided to retrain, particularly for tech jobs, rather than return to the low pay and high expectations demanded in the hospitality sector.  But the game of musical chairs still means there are jobs to fill. Making it easier for immigrants to work in Canada is a solution, he says.

    As well, better transportation and more housing are necessary. But until government red tape is cut, affordable housing is a castle in the air. Smythe cites lengthy delays at city hall for high-rise development permits, which can add thousands of dollars in costs each month to new housing. And Nanaimo’s 0.5 per cent vacancy rate for rentals renders it almost impossible to find housing.

    “It’s a problem for any entry-level worker,” Smythe says.

    The challenges to find and produce employees for many, many workplaces won’t be solved soon in a world crushed by a virus. As Michael Sandler, of the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC, says, his profession has been very good at doing more with less. That’s because the nursing shortage has been around since 2009.

    “What I worry about is that COVID is the piece that will stress it beyond the breaking point,” he says.

    One Company’s Solution

    In August 2021, Sam Jones decided to pay all his employees the living wage. (The living wage for Greater Victoria is $19.39 an hour vs minimum wage at $15.20 an hour.)

    The owner of 2% Jazz Coffee had always paid his employees a dollar or more above the minimum wage. But the situation had changed. A lot of people don’t have to come back to work, or are choosing not to work someplace where they don’t feel valued. Historically, one of the biggest expenses business owners in the industry face is labour costs, so when looking at the bottom line, it made sense to many to pay people the least they could and work them hard.

    Subsequently recruiting for a barista job, Jones had over 100 applicants.

    He was thrilled with that level of choice — a shift away from the position that many find themselves in — taking whatever they can get.

    Jones is a member of Victoria’s Bread and Butter Collective, created during the pandemic to share resources and to impact positive change within the industry. As one of the first to raise wages, he hopes others will follow suit.