An aerial view over downtown Victoria and the Inner Harbour. (Black Press Media file photo)

An aerial view over downtown Victoria and the Inner Harbour. (Black Press Media file photo)

Solving worker shortages requires housing action: Greater Victoria business leaders

Local business groups tackle employment crunch and how companies more forward

No one issue is to blame for employers struggling to fill positions, but local business leaders made it very clear that more than anything, people can’t work where they can’t live.

Greater Victoria hasn’t been immune to worker shortages impacting global commerce and supply chains, business officials said during a Sept. 15 South Island Prosperity Partnership panel.

Just over half of all Canadian businesses are being strained by staffing issues, said Emilie de Rosenroll, the partnership’s CEO. The current reality was years in the making, she said, but COVID-19 compounded structural issues in the labour landscape and saw people reflect on their work-life balance.

A perpetual tiny tech talent pool and the rise of remote work could now see local companies start looking abroad, said Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council CEO Dan Gunn. That will impact the region’s economy as its tech sector brings in about $5 billion annually, he said.

“If those companies have to find their talent from somewhere else on the globe, then we’re going to lose some of that positive ripple effect.”

The sector’s biggest issue for attracting talent is housing affordability and availability, Gunn said. The speakers stressed rapidly increasing density and finding creative ways to build tens of thousands of new homes.

It’s especially challenging for entry-level workers and students, said Downtown Victoria Business Association’s Jeff Bray. “There will be lots of (homes) that middle-income, higher income are going to be able to afford but the workers that we’re going to need, and that Canada is aiming to bring in, are going to find it increasingly difficult to live in the Capital Region.”

The issue is also a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg-scenario, said Rory Kulmala, CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association. Despite a vast number of housing projects, its members lack the workforce to take them on. Still, all the planned projects don’t come close to meeting the demand, the panellists said.

“The top three things that we can ultimately do to attract and retain workers: number one is housing, number two is housing and the third one is housing,” Bray said.

A major workforce demographic shift is in the midst amid a decade-long trend of baby boomers retiring, the business experts said.

It’s imperative for the federal government to fulfil its immigration-boosting commitment to fill retirement gaps, Bray said. Current backlogs are already impacting the hospitality industry as it’s dependent on seasonal and other immigrant workers, he said.

Rosenroll noted automation needs to be better utilized to do more with less. That way, she said technology can streamline mundane work or improve efficiency, while workers can upskill and focus on tasks automation can’t replace.

While technology helped businesses reach customers during the pandemic, it may now be a pinch point for workers as normal operations return. Bray gave the example of a thin-staffed Starbucks struggling to keep up with both in-store customers and online delivery app orders. He added the pandemic saw shifts to more stable industries, where cleaners or kitchen staff, for example, traded their hotel jobs for ones at long-term care homes.

Employers have also lost some of their power, the biz leaders said, because companies are competing for a smaller overall labour pool as workers have a wider buffet of sectors to choose from.

Panellists emphasized the need for companies to listen to their staff, make work an enticing place, ensure people feel valued and take workers’ mental health seriously. Kulmala said it’ll be vital for construction companies, for example, to accommodate cultural needs, tackle the opioid crisis that’s hitting the industry hard and make sites more welcoming for women.

“How can Victoria preserve what makes so many people want to be here, while making room for more people to be here, that’s the critical linchpin but something that’s actually within our control,” Gunn said.

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