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Shuswap labour shortage: Local businesses hiring, but can’t find employees

Lack of affordable housing said to be part of the problem
Shuswap businesses and economic groups have reported a labour shortage in 2021. (Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer)

For Shuswap employers, good help has been hard to find.

Representatives from the Salmon Arm Downtown Improvement Association (DSA) and District of Sicamous Chamber of Commerce both said they’ve had local businesses call them asking for help finding employees.

The Thompson-Okanagan economic region stretches from Princeton in the west, to Golden and the Alberta border in the east, to Osoyoos and the Washington state border in the south. It has an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent, according to July 2021 data from WorkBC — which said the region’s unemployment rate is consistently higher than the provincial rate.

Sheila Devost, executive director with the District of Sicamous Chamber of Commerce, pointed to a particular problem contributing to the labour shortage in Sicamous: housing. She said it’s a “chicken and the egg” situation, in which people need jobs to afford housing, but people can’t work if there’s nowhere to live.

“I get calls regularly from businesses looking to connect with people looking for work,” said Devost. She wished she could provide them with a better answer.

Labour shortages have affected Sicamous historically, but this year, the Two Mile Road wildfire and COVID-19 pandemic made things even more difficult for both workers and employers, she said.

As tourism is a main industry in Sicamous, summer staffing demand is high while housing availability — especially affordable housing — remains low, said Devost. She said some of the bigger companies, such as houseboat companies, do their best to provide staff housing, but there’s only so much they can do.

Business owners in Sicamous are exhausted, said Devost, as they’re putting in many extra hours just to keep their businesses open.

Askew’s Foods, with two stores in Salmon Arm, one in Sicamous and one in Armstrong, has had difficulty attracting employees in each of the communities it serves.

Dave Wallace, general manager of Askew’s Foods, said each location has been in need of staff for the past year-and-a-half.

“Just about any time you could go into our stores and there would be employment waiting for you, right from entry level to skilled labour,” said Wallace. “It is really tough getting anybody into our stores to work at this time.”

Wallace said two Askew’s locations have had reduced store hours since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the labour shortage.

“We don’t have the staff to keep the uptown Salmon Arm location open until 10 p.m.,” said Wallace.

Those looking to see what Askew’s is hiring for can check the careers tab on the company’s website. However, Wallace said as the company is always looking for staff, it’s been hard to keep the tab up to date.

He said he thinks what’s keeping people away from working at Askew’s is the fact that “everyone is hiring.”

“If we’re looking to hire someone to work a shift in our deli department at 10 at night, and they can find a job across town where they’re home at five, we’re going to have a challenge. And it’s not necessarily the money whatsoever,” said Wallace.

He said Askew’s tries to be competitive, and despite hiring new employees every week, it still needs more.

“I know three new cashiers have just started at the new uptown location and we’re very happy to have them onboard,” said Wallace.

“We are very thankful for the employees we do have. They have worked tirelessly through COVID-19, pulling extra shifts.”

Althea Mongerson, membership and community coordinator for DSA, said she’s heard from multiple businesses in downtown Salmon Arm that are short on labour.

“We’ve seen it in restaurants for sure, and it’s starting to trickle into retail as well,” said Mongerson.

She said there’s no single issue causing the labour shortage; there’s a big mix of them.

The South Shuswap Chamber of Commerce has also seen its business owners face adversity in recent times.

Chamber president Lynn Ewart said employers have struggled through the pandemic for over a year-and-a-half, and a massive labour shortage is challenging South Shuswap business owners to find and retain staff.

Read more: Two Mile wildfire near Sicamous held thanks to firefighting crews’ ‘great work’: Fire chief

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