Edmonton

'There's not a lot of people passing in resumés,' says Fort McMurray restaurant owner

Fort McMurray needs workers. The city’s restaurant and service industry says it’s facing a labour shortage in the aftermath of the May wildfire.

'We are just trying to let people know that Fort McMurray is still open for business'

Fort McMurray's downtown Subway location on Franklin Street was down to one employee this week. Usually this location should have six workers. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

A Fort McMurray Subway owner was so desperate for staff at one of her downtown locations she pulled in her 18-year-old son to run that restaurant by himself.

"[Thursday] we closed here at 4 p.m. I didn't have anyone to work supper," said Crystal Reid, franchise owner of six Subway restaurants.

Although Reid jokes that nothing stresses her, she barely had time to talk in between relieving her son who has been working all day and conducting an interview with a prospective candidate.

In between serving sandwiches, Crystal Reid, the owner of six Subway restaurants in Fort McMurray, conducts an interview for new staff she desperately needs. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

As she runs out of Subway's Italian herb and cheese bread, because there's no one to bake a new batch, Reid says, she's never seen Fort McMurray this short of restaurant workers.

"I don't know if its a lack of people coming back to the city, or what. But there's not a lot of people passing in resumés."

Since the fire, Statistics Canada hasn't published job data for the Wood Buffalo and Cold Lake region, which includes Fort McMurray. The agency will release its next jobs report for the area in October.

But you don't need numbers to tell the Fort McMurray's business community there's a service-worker shortage.

"We've been seeing some of our restaurants are not open or operational at their normal business hours pre-fire," said Alexis Foster, executive director of Fort McMurray's chamber of commerce.

The chamber suspects many service industry workers evacuated and didn't return as the wildfire roared through. During their month-long exile, those employees likely found work in bars, restaurants and hotels in Calgary and Edmonton and decided to stay.

Help wanted and "opportunity" signs posted at the city's Starbucks and McDonald's restaurants also confirm the suspicion.

'Seems a lot slower right now'

At Fort McMurray's provincial employment centre it's easy to find a free computer just before the lunch hour.

Some people admit they're here to use the internet, make a call or use the fax machine instead of polishing their cover letters.

Samrya Ilyas manages Alberta Works, Fort McMurray's employment centre. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Traffic trickles in and out as people walk past a bulletin board filled with job postings for restaurants, cleaning jobs and grocery help.

"When we first came back right after the fire it was crazy busy. Our numbers were 1,100 people a day," said Samra Ilyas, who runs the Alberta Works employment centre in Fort McMurray.

"For us it seems a lot slower right now."

Today, walk-ins hover around 350 per day. That's not only lower than the weeks after Fort McMurray's wildfire evacuees returned, but also below January levels when client walk-ins daily averaged 400.

Back then the region was reeling from hiring slowdowns in the oilsands sector and a nine-per-cent unemployment rate; the highest in Alberta.

Unemployment numbers only got worse before the fire.

Open for business

Ilyas suspects the rush of job seekers the Alberta Works office saw in June have found jobs.

"Right now we do have people coming back and saying they were successful in finding employment," Ilyas said.

Ilyas said the Alberta Works centre is not seeing clients who say they have found work in professional or skilled sectors in the oilsands. They're also not seeing many postings for these types of employment opportunities.

Alexis Foster, executive director of the Fort McMurray chamber of commerce, says businesses are hiring. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Fort McMurray's employment centre is hoping October's jobs report gives a clearer picture of what's happening with the job market.

So does Fort McMurray's chamber of commerce.

Regardless of the numbers, both local organizations and Fort McMurray's fast-food chains want Canadian job seekers to know Fort McMurray is hiring.

"We are just trying to let people know that Fort McMurray is still open for business. There are still opportunities here," Foster said.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook,Twitter and via email.