Edmonton

'Big crunch summer' expected as labour shortage strains Jasper's tourism industry

As travel restrictions ease, international visitors are expected to flock to the Rockies in droves not seen since before the pandemic first hit. But hotels, restaurants and bars are struggling to get enough workers on the job to keep those travellers fed, housed and entertained.

Hiring on hold for some as staff housing reaches capacity

Businesses in Jasper, Alta., are struggling to find enough employees with a busy summer season lying ahead. (Tourism Jasper)

A labour shortage in Jasper has cooks emerging from the kitchen to wait tables, office managers vacating their desks to scrub lobby floors and hotel toilets.

With COVID-19 travel restrictions eased, international visitors are expected to return to the Rockies in droves. But hotels, restaurants and bars are struggling to get enough workers on the job to keep those travellers fed, housed and entertained.

Service workers are already doing double — even triple — duty to contend with a lack of manpower in the mountain town, said Pattie Pavlov, executive director of the Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce.

And there is little relief in sight.

"It's a serious problem," she said. "We totally see this as a big crunch summer." 

'Wishing they had more people'

Jasper's chronic labour shortage is being compounded by a pandemic-driven loss of seasonal workers and an ongoing accommodation deficit. 

Housing is expensive and hard to come by. Constraints on construction in the national park mean Jasper's footprint hasn't kept up with the growth, especially when the population balloons each summer.

"The market is not wide open in that regard, and it is very expensive," she said. 

Most job offers come with the offer of housing, either in shared apartments or dedicated staff suites, but those accommodations have been nearing capacity for years, Pavlov said.

It's at the point where many unfilled positions aren't even being posted, she said. 

"It's buzzing and people are getting ready and prepared," she said about the looming summer season. "They're just wishing they had more people to be prepared with." 

With housing demand continuing to outstrip supply, some businesses simply don't have the space for new employees, Pavlov said.

Those pressures are being felt at Bear's Paw Bakery, where customers often line the sidewalk for plump cinnamon rolls and piping hot coffee.

The housing shortage is not new but it's getting worse, said general manager Mircel Randall, one of many Jasper workers who have struggled to find affordable accommodation in town.

He has worked in Jasper since 2009 but moved to Hinton in 2014, making the hour-long (in good weather) commute to and from his job.

The bakery is about five workers short but has put hiring on hold because its staffing accommodations are full. As a result, many employees will likely work overtime and forgo their days off in the busy summer ahead. 

"I do have a lot of applications, a lot of good candidates that could be joining my workforce," he said.

"My number one problem is not finding people," he said. "It's just finding accommodations for them."

A scan of the jobs board at the Jasper Employment and Education Centre shows more than 300 employers are searching for kitchen workers, housekeeping and guest services staff and other seasonal jobs like kiosk cashiers, Skytram workers, lifeguards, and whitewater rafting guides. 

There are more than 600 current job vacancies.

The labour shortage has been particularly acute in retail and housekeeping but every business is feeling the pinch, said Ginette Marcoux, executive director of the centre.

While the housing shortage remains the largest barrier, she said the town — like many other tourism-driven communities — is also contending with an exodus of service workers. 

Students and international workers used to flock to the town each spring in search of jobs but the pandemic saw many move on to more stable occupations, Marcoux said.

"There's been such a labour shortage, we've had to close [hotel] rooms. Restaurants have had to close for a couple of days a week just so they don't burn out their staff," she said.

She suggests the labour shortage is a big opportunity for job-seekers but she's worried that If workers don't arrive within the next few weeks, this summer might again see businesses having to limit their operations.

"If we don't see more workers coming into our community looking for jobs, I think it's absolutely going to happen again."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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