Employers stretched to recruit workers in BC’s pandemic recovery economy

Across the country, the workforce that was hit by massive job losses at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is being hit again by multiple forces.

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Managers at restaurant supplier Russell Hendrix had to do a lot of juggling in the company’s main showroom to fill two-story sales positions that took months to fill, even offering $1,000 signing bonuses.

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“Vancouver was a challenge for me before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it much more difficult,” said Anna Blaszczynska, the company’s vice president of human resources, who took the “unprecedented” step of using a recruiting agency to find those showroom sales reps, which is usually an entry-level position.

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And with the unemployment rate across the province of British Columbia near record lows, 4.8 percent as of August, according to Statistics Canada’s labor force survey, Blaszczynska doesn’t know “if there’s going to be an end to this”.

BC is not alone. Across the country, the workforce that was hit by massive job losses at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is being hit again by multiple forces.

In many cases, workers do not return to the jobs they lost, having chosen to change careers. Then there is the simple demographic pressure of workers retiring faster than new candidates entering the workforce.

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“I think the unemployment rate is very low in Vancouver, and I also think that COVID has changed the mindset of job seekers,” Blaszczynska said. “People want flexibility, people want to work from home, people want different kinds of benefits that I think they got used to with COVID.”

Russell Hendrix’s challenge is to continue to rebuild his staff at the pace of a hospitality industry that has its own struggles to find workers to match the demands of increased tourism and special events that have been down for two years.

Many restaurant employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic had options in health care, technology or places like Amazon warehouses, said Ian Tostenson, executive director of the BC Restaurant and Food Service Association.

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“And those companies probably did a pretty good job of retention,” Tostenson said.

Tostenson said the industry estimate is that they are still short 30,000 to 35,000 employees in a hospitality workforce of about 190,000.

“Historically, there have been so many young people in the system, up until the last, say, five or six years, who were available to work, (so recruiting) was never an issue,” Tostenson said. “Now, we have to become an employer of choice.”

Job vacancy statistics support estimates of that challenge, according to economist Bryan Yu, with BC’s hospitality sector reporting 12.2 percent of all job vacancies in the second quarter of 2022.

“Those sectors, even though they have not returned to the level of employment they had before the pandemic, are also facing the greatest challenge in finding employees,” said Yu, chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union.

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Then other occupations in the professional services sector and construction trades, which were tough before the pandemic, are even more employee-hungry to the point of slowing job growth.

Job vacancies peaked in June, when Statistics Canada reported a record 179,000 unfilled job advertisements. Compared to the number of unemployed people, BC had a ratio of 0.7, meaning that for every 10 vacancies there were seven potential candidates.

“Job growth in the last few months has been kind of flat, and I think part of that is people just can’t find employees,” Yu said.

BC’s job market was already beginning to tighten before the pandemic began, said economist Ken Peacock of the Business Council of BC Construction. The building trades have struggled to recruit for years.

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Job growth in the public sector, especially in health care and education, has had a significant impact on lowering unemployment rates, Peacock said. Job growth in the private sector has been less impressive.

However, since the pandemic, Peacock, the council’s vice president and chief economist, said demographics have started to catch up with the workforce, as people now start retiring faster than new workers are coming in.

And among the legions of workers who lost their jobs in the hardest-hit sectors, Peacock said many went on to safer careers, but some just haven’t returned to the workforce.

“Maybe half of those people who wouldn’t have lost their jobs more permanently (in tourism and hospitality) have rotated to other industries, and maybe about half of those people haven’t returned to the job market.”

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Peacock warned that wage rates are also a factor in the equation. People are unwilling to fill some jobs at prevailing wages, “but at a higher wage, you may not see the same intensity of shortages.”

Regardless, Peacock said the shrinking number of workers available to fill vacant positions is becoming a limit to economic growth itself.

“I would say that, in general, we are at a point where tight labor markets are restricting the ability (of companies) to expand,” said Peacock. “Yes, definitely.”

Looking ahead to 2023, however, Peacock said moves by the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates to quell inflation will help alleviate some of the worst labor shortages as the economy slows.

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