Saskatchewan

'It's tough:' Sask. businesses face labour shortage, lack of experienced applicants

Restaurants and stores in Saskatchewan say they are facing a labour shortage. In fact, if you walk around either Saskatoon or Regina, you will see more than a few 'help wanted' signs in windows. 

Province says there is a 'challenging' job vacancy rate in restaurant sector

Sherry Halvorson is district manager of Urban Cellars in Saskatoon. She says she is struggling to hire much-needed employees. (Don Somers/CBC)

Restaurants and stores in Saskatchewan say they are facing a labour shortage. In fact, if you walk around either Saskatoon or Regina, you will see more than a few "help wanted" signs in windows. 

The government of Saskatchewan confirmed the labour shortage in an email statement to the CBC. 

The restaurant sector has a high job vacancy rate, according to the province. Both the size of the labour force and employment levels are down compared to the same period in 2019.

"These concerns are real and they reflect the tightening of the labour market, not only in Saskatchewan, but across Canada and globally," said the statement.

The province says there were 4,056 job vacancies for sales and service related occupations posted on SaskJobs and Job Bank in September — an increase of 117 per cent from 2020. 

Sherry Halvorson, district manager of Urban Cellars Beer Spirits & Wine Stores in Saskatoon, said she is extremely short-staffed. And she isn't alone. 

"Business owners, business management in the area … they're all struggling for help. It doesn't matter whether they're restaurants, whether they're grocery stores. The bank is lined up right out the door. They need bank tellers," said Halvorson. 

"It's the fact of life. We need to get people back to work."

Halvorson said a lot of her part-time employees are working full-time hours and members of the management team, including herself, are clocking over 60 hours of labour per week. 

Restaurants and stores in Saskatchewan say they are facing a labour shortage. (Don Somers/CBC)

Even though Halvorson puts ads on various hiring sites including SaskJobs.ca, it's been a struggle to get people to apply. 

"Prior to the pandemic we were probably getting at least 10 applicants in a week," she said. "Once the pandemic hit, we're lucky if we get maybe one every three weeks, if that."

Urban Cellars is opening a new Saskatoon location soon, but Halvorson said they do not have the people to staff the store because no one is applying. 

"When you come to the point where you can't service your customers the way you want to, businesses have to look at that and go, 'Well, maybe I have to look at my hours of operation. Because I can't keep overworking the present staff that I have because I can't afford to lose them.' It's tough."

Halvorson says the recent end to some government programs may result in more people applying for jobs. 

Among the programs that have ended are the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and the Canada recovery benefit (CRB).

"Because to be honest, we need those people to drive our economy," Halvorson said. "Without them at work, our economy still suffers."

CBC asked the Saskatchewan government what was behind the recent labour shortages.

"There are a variety of reasons for the labour shortage, including re-evaluation of the job benefits by some workers [and] the requirement of employee vaccinations or proof of a negative test by businesses," the government said in a written statement. 

Exodus of restaurant workers

Nineteen-year-old Azwa Alam from Saskatoon handed in her resignation to the McDonald's she had worked at part-time for three years in September. But the University of Saskatchewan student had already stopped taking shifts prior to that. 

While there were multiple reasons for Alam's resignation, she said one issue was the risk involved with working a front-facing job during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We were taking more precautions and living in kind of fear. Going to work every day also involved taking the bus. That was also like something I was not looking forward to," Alam said. 

'Help Wanted' signs and online job ads are all too common in Saskatchewan right now. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Alam left her McDonald's job when she found a job as a data analyst.

"I found a work-from-home job where I felt much more respected, both for my time and my safety.… And the aspect of commuting to work was not necessary," said Alam.

"So I was not putting myself in risk by taking public transport every day, nor was I dealing with rude customers or dealing with a human resources [department] that I felt did not really hold people accountable."

Labour pool getting younger

Levi Warren, general manager of Birmingham's Vodka and Ale House in east Regina, said he has seen a shift in who is applying for jobs in the restaurant industry over the course of the pandemic. 

"I've noticed the labour pool has gotten a lot younger. So, 19- and 20-year-olds are very eager to get into the restaurant industry. I would say older [people] around the 25 to 30 mark that have been in the industry a long time have actually stepped away," said Warren. 

"They couldn't sustain working in a restaurant anymore, with lock-downs and stuff like that."

Levi Warren, general manager of Birmingham's Vodka and Ale House in east Regina, says he has seen a shift in who is applying for jobs in the restaurant industry over the course of the pandemic.  (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

Warren said many long-time restaurant workers were out of jobs for a few months and had to find work elsewhere. Now they are not returning due to COVID-19 guidelines and changes in the industry. 

The manager said Birmingham's is currently hiring for multiple jobs. Unlike Halvorson at Urban Cellars in Saskatoon, Warren has been getting applicants. 

He said that since the emergency income support programs ended, people have been more willing to work because they have nothing to fall back on anymore. However, Warren said that isn't the fix-all solution for the restaurant industry's hiring problems. 

"We're not struggling to find people. We're just struggling to find the right people," said Warren. 

"I haven't found too many people that were applying that have experienced being either a server or a bartender.… and without experience, it's hard to kind of find your groove and to fit in."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. She holds a master of journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

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