Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia restaurant operators desperate for staff, says industry rep

It is getting "tougher and tougher to find the number of employees we need to serve our customers," says Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of Restaurants Canada.

'People are getting older, there are fewer kids, there is out-migration'

The hospitality industry has traditionally attracted young people but demographic changes and out-migration is causing operators to look at hiring more seniors and pressing governments to allow more immigrants to fill labour shortages. (CBC)

One of the province's most thriving sectors is having a hard time attracting and keeping workers.

Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of industry association Restaurants Canada, said this time of year, when students return to their studies, is especially difficult for the food service industry.

The group surveys its members every three months, and Erjavec said worker shortages has for the first time climbed to second spot in terms of issues operators say they face, behind labour costs. Sixty-one per cent had trouble attracting people to work in their businesses, he said.

The restaurant industry in Nova Scotia employs more than 30,000 people, he said. Many of them are young, which means the labour situation worsens when they return to school in the fall.

"What we see happening is that the industry is growing but demographics are not with us," Erjavec said in an interview. "People are getting older, there are fewer kids, there is out-migration. That makes it tougher and tougher to find the number of employees we need to serve our customers."

Restaurants in the Atlantic provinces are struggling to find staff, especially during shoulder seasons, when students have returned to school, says Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of Restaurants Canada. (CBC)

One solution is bringing more immigrants here, he said.

"It is a really great option for permanent long-time employees. I think that's a great way to get people with the right skills, we can find people with experience. Particularly in the kitchen, chef area, where the shortage is acute. We really can't find enough cooks, kitchen helpers."

He acknowledged that food service "is hard work" but said it's one of the few industries that is growing.

"People want to eat out more, for convenience," Erjavec​ said, "but the demographic challenges are against us. We really have to look at innovative solutions — immigration, non-traditional workforces, people who are retired."

For example, New Brunswick has just brought in a program where it's encouraging operators to hire seniors for the September and October months, he said.

"We've worked really hard to grow the shoulder seasons but then the students leave in September, which really hurts us. It's a challenge and sometimes operators close earlier for the season when they actually have customers, or they may choose not to open for lunch. There's not a simple solution."

Chefs and other kitchen staff are particularly hard to find and retain, says a recent survey of restaurants in the Atlantic region. (CBC)

While Erjavec suggests working with government, policy makers, and universities and high schools to try to find ways to bring people into the industry and encourage them to stay, food service operators themselves may need to examine how they treat workers.

Darius Mirshahi, with Service Employees International Union — SEIU Local 2, said out-migration is directly related to the low wages and lack of advancement opportunities in Nova Scotia, especially in eateries. He noted the province has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country.

"Sure, people are going to go to Ontario or Alberta," he said.

Darius Mirshahi, left, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union Local 2, says better working conditions and pay would help to attract and retain food service workers. (David Laughlin/CBC)

He said the food service industry is notorious for flouting labour standards by overworking staff, preventing them from taking breaks and discriminating on the basis of age and sex.

"They [restaurants] may be seeking a certain look or gender and will discriminate on that basis. Part of the problem here is the lack of labour standards enforcement."

Because most food service operations are not unionized, there is little recourse when a worker is treated badly, Mirshahi said.

And that causes high turnover and drives people away from looking at food service as a long-term career.

"When people are being paid a living wage and not dependent on tips, and feel secure in their jobs, there is more incentive to stay on," Mirshahi said.

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia

With files from Amy Smith, CBC News