As ski season launches in Canada, resorts are facing a critical labour shortage and the industry is asking the federal government to speed up visa approvals for workers from abroad.
Executives say the shortage is a result of immigration delays. Thousands of jobs are open, but Canadians aren’t biting; locals say the wages are just not adequate in expensive ski towns. The COVID-19 variant concerns and, for those in British Columbia, the devastation of recent flooding are compounding the challenges.
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 the hiring of young seasonal workers. Many are between 18 and 25 and taking a break after high school or university. They fill the bulk of the roles on the ski hills, as well as the retail, service or hospitality jobs in the surrounding villages.
But the pandemic has made travelling uncertain and even impossible. For Australians, who make up a large number of foreign workers at Canadian ski resorts, national travel restrictions were only lifted at the end of October.
According to Canadian Ski Council president Paul Pinchbeck, the situation is dire. After a near-record-breaking 2020 season – Quebec, for instance, exceeded its 10-year visitor high – he expects another busy winter. Without more staff, the surrounding businesses such as restaurants, which faced tight restrictions all summer, will be forced to close or reduce their operating hours, further hampering the economic recovery of the industry.
“We know we have employees from all over the globe who want to come and work in Canada,” Mr. Pinchbeck said. “If we can get this unravelled as quickly as possible at the federal level, we can still benefit and make up time.”
On Nov. 15, the Canadian Ski Council, which represents 236 ski areas across the country, called on Ottawa to expedite its visa process, saying that as much as 30 per cent of jobs risk going unfilled this winter.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it was prioritizing visas for workers serving essential sectors and that the processing time for International Experience Canada visas is currently eight weeks, which means workers who applied only recently won’t be arriving for at least two months. The portal closed to new applicants for this ski season on Nov. 12.
Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president at Big White Ski Resort Ltd. near Kelowna, B.C., said his resort would typically hire more than 500 seasonal workers. This year, despite interest from abroad, just 15 potential employees have had their holiday permits accepted.
With so many jobs available, resorts are instead trying to attract more Canadians, with little success.
“We are increasing wages, we are increasing offerings to try and attract people, but at this point, there just doesn’t seem to be people who are ready to work,” Mr. Pinchbeck said.
In early November, Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario said it would raise entry-level 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 coming out of the pandemic and they are ready to open and ready to go full steam ahead. So increasing our minimum wage, that just helps us be a little bit more competitive.”
The competition has extended past the slopes.
Parks Canada closed Miette Hot Springs, one of its three hot springs locations in the Canadian Rockies, this fall because of a shortage of lifeguards. According to spokesperson James Eastham, first aid, CPR and courses to obtain National Lifeguard certificates were cancelled for 18 months, limiting the pool of potential employees for this season. Parks Canada expects to open Miette in May, 2022.
Local businesses, too, are in search of employees. Christina Antoniak, who owns three restaurants in the Kelowna area, said she is having a hard time holding on to staff – currently, just 60 of her 90 available roles are filled. She said she has had to reduce operation to three days in one of her restaurants as a result. For a company that only operates during the winter, it’s a significant blow.
“It’s a really challenging time. These jobs are not attractive to Canadians no matter how much money we’re offering. Not a lot of Canadians choose to have a five-month position, even with increased wages,” Ms. Antoniak said.
The five-month gigs are attractive to foreign workers looking for fun experiences, and minimum wage is acceptable for the short term, but many locals say the offerings are unappealing.
The lack of affordable housing in ski towns is another off-putting problem. Resort real estate is notoriously expensive, and prices shot up as Airbnb rentals proliferated and, more recently, as Canadians moved to rural areas during the pandemic. Some resorts offer discounts to employees, but they are not always available to everyone.
Liam Harknett, who has worked at Big White in B.C. 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.
“Landlords won’t give you a single room – they’ll try to squeeze as many people as possible. Last year, I was living in a storage room that was being used as a double room. There was no ventilation and no windows – this is during COVID. It was totally illegal. I complained, but nothing ever came of it,” he said.
At Big White, as with other ski resorts, international employees can expect to pay as much as $800 a month for a quad room with bunk beds. That may be acceptable to someone looking for a new experience, Mr. Harknett said, but for locals hoping to save up money, minimum wage won’t do in an expensive town. This is especially so during a pandemic, when physical distancing and health are top of mind.
When asked about accommodation, Mr. Ballingall of Big White said his company offers discounted housing for 408 employees on a week-by-week basis.
While housing problems are common to many ski hills, Carla Campbell, who has worked at several resorts including Big White, said the situation is not as grim at other ski towns, especially those close to larger cities. At SilverStar Mountain Resort in B.C., for instance, all staff who want rooms can get one this year, as the company booked additional hotel rooms in nearby Vernon, said Ian Jenkins, the company’s director of accommodation.
However, not all resorts have this advantage of urban proximity. Ms. Campbell points to another issue plaguing villages: accessibility. Ski towns are often rural and isolated, meaning that, for those not living locally, getting to work can be a problem.
Typically, young Big White employees could depend on a shuttle, she said, but this year, it is not running because of the pandemic. The drive from the city to the slopes can reach an hour long in snowy conditions, and for young drivers who are new to the roads or don’t have their own vehicles, this makes getting to work difficult.
Mr. Ballingall said there is a shuttle service available for housekeeping staff, as well as internally organized carpools from local cities. In addition, he said, staff receive a free ski pass, a year-end bonus, 40 per cent off food, free lessons and discounts on retail and rental equipment.
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