Ski resorts face severe shortage of young workers at the start of the season

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A help finder sign can be found under the Lara Gondola in Big White Village. With large numbers of foreign workers unable to obtain vacation visas, Canada’s ski resorts face labor shortages this winter.Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

As the ski season kicks off in Canada, resorts face a serious labor shortage and the industry calls on the federal government to speed up visa approvals for overseas workers.

Executives say the shortage is the result of immigration delays. Thousands of jobs are open, but Canadians don’t bite; locals say wages are simply not adequate in expensive ski towns. The COVID-19 variant is worrying, and for those in British Columbia, the devastation from recent flooding is making the challenges worse.

Ski resorts typically rely on seasonal employees on working holiday visas, often through the International Experience Canada program, an agreement with 35 countries – including Australia, New Zealand and Britain – that facilitates travel. hiring of young seasonal workers. Many are between 18 and 25 and take a break after high school or college. They occupy most of the positions on the ski slopes, as well as retail, service or hospitality jobs in the surrounding villages.

But the pandemic has made travel uncertain and even impossible. For Australians, who constitute a large number of foreign workers at Canadian ski resorts, national travel restrictions were not lifted until the end of October.

Big White Ski Resort typically employs over 500 seasonal workers. This year, despite interest from abroad, only 15 potential employees have had their vacation permits accepted.Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

According to the President of the Canadian Ski Council, Paul Pinchbeck, the situation is dire. After an almost record-breaking 2020 season – Quebec, for example, surpassed its visitor record in 10 years – it expects another busy winter. Without more staff, surrounding businesses such as restaurants, which have faced tight restrictions all summer, will be forced to close or reduce their hours of operation, further hampering the industry’s economic recovery.

“We know we have employees from all over the world who want to come and work in Canada,” said Pinchbeck. “If we can fix this problem as quickly as possible at the federal level, we can still benefit and catch up. “

On November 15, the Canadian Ski Council, which represents 236 ski areas across the country, called on Ottawa to speed up its visa process, saying up to 30 percent of jobs are at risk of going unfilled this winter.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it is prioritizing visas for workers in essential industries and that International Experience Canada’s visa processing time is currently eight weeks, this which means workers who have only recently requested arrive for at least two months. The portal closed to new applicants for this ski season on November 12.

With so many jobs available, resorts are trying to attract more Canadians instead, with little success.Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

Michael Ballingall, Senior Vice President of Big White Ski Resort Ltd. near Kelowna, British Columbia, said his station would typically hire more than 500 seasonal workers. This year, despite interest from abroad, only 15 potential employees have had their vacation permits accepted.

With so many jobs available, resorts are trying to attract more Canadians instead, with little success.

“We are raising the salaries, we are increasing the offers to try to attract people, but at this point there just don’t seem to be any people ready to work,” Pinchbeck said.

In early November, Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario announced it would increase entry rates to $ 16.50 an hour from $ 15.20.

“Right now people have a lot of choice,” said Lesley Biffin, vice president of human resources at Blue Mountain. “Businesses are emerging from the pandemic and they are ready to open up and go full steam ahead. So increasing our minimum wage just helps us to be a little more competitive. “

The competition extended beyond the slopes.

Parks Canada closed Miette Hot Springs, one of its three hot spring sites in the Canadian Rockies, this fall due to a shortage of lifeguards. First aid, CPR and National Lifeguard certification courses have been canceled for 18 months, limiting the pool of potential employees for this season, according to spokesperson James Eastham. Parks Canada plans to open Miette in May 2022.

Local businesses are also looking for employees. Christina Antoniak, who owns three restaurants in the Kelowna area, said she was struggling to retain her staff – currently only 60 of her 90 available positions are filled. She said she had to cut operation to three days at one of her restaurants as a result. For a business that only operates in the winter, this is a big blow.

“It’s a really tough time. These jobs are not attractive to Canadians, no matter how much money we provide. Few Canadians choose a five-month job, even with a raise, ”said Ms. Antoniak.

Big White rental store employee Lee Bevis is getting ready for the next staff sale at the Big White complex on November 15.Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

The five-month concerts are appealing to foreign workers looking for fun experiences, and the minimum wage is acceptable in the short term, but many locals say the offers aren’t appealing.

Another off-putting problem is the lack of affordable housing at ski resorts. Resort real estate is notoriously expensive, and prices have skyrocketed as Airbnb rentals have proliferated and, more recently, as Canadians have moved to rural areas during the pandemic. Some resorts offer employee discounts, but they are not always available to everyone.

Liam Harknett, who has worked in Big White, BC for the past three years since graduating from high school, said the housing situation has made working in ski towns unattractive. for many young people.

“The owners won’t give you a single room – they will try to squeeze as many people as possible. Last year I was living in a storage room which served as a double bedroom. There was no ventilation and no windows – this is during COVID. It was totally illegal. I complained, but nothing ever happened, ”he said.

At Big White, like at other ski resorts, international employees can expect to pay up to $ 800 per month for a quadruple room with bunk beds. This may be okay for someone looking for a new experience, Mr Harknett said, but for locals hoping to save money, minimum wage won’t do in an expensive city. This is especially the case during a pandemic, when physical distance and health are a priority.

Asked about accommodation, Big White’s Mr Ballingall said his company offers discounted accommodation to 408 employees on a weekly basis.

While housing issues are common at many ski resorts, Carla Campbell, who has worked at several resorts including Big White, said the situation was not as grim at other ski resorts, particularly those close to large cities. At SilverStar Mountain Resort in British Columbia, for example, all staff who want rooms can get one this year, as the company has booked additional hotel rooms in nearby Vernon, said Ian Jenkins, director of the hosting of the company.

However, not all stations have this advantage of urban proximity. Ms. Campbell points to another problem that plagues the villages: accessibility. Ski resorts are often rural and isolated, which means that, for those who don’t live there, getting to work can be a hassle.

Typically, young Big White employees might depend on a shuttle, she said, but this year it’s not working because of the pandemic. The drive from town to the slopes can take an hour in snow conditions, and for young drivers who are new to the roads or who don’t have their own vehicle, this makes the job difficult.

Mr Ballingall said there is a shuttle service available for maintenance staff, as well as in-house ridesharing from local towns. In addition, he said, staff receive a free ski pass, end-of-year bonus, 40% off food, free lessons, and discounts on retail and ski equipment. rental.

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