Even in a pandemic Okanagan businesses struggle to find staff | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Even in a pandemic Okanagan businesses struggle to find staff

Spruce Salon owner Katie Matheson cuts hair in this file photo from January 2020.
November 22, 2020 - 6:00 PM

Vernon salon owner and stylist Katie Matheson says every single business owner who sits in her chair mentions that they're having problems with staffing.

Attracting and retaining staff was been an issue in the  Okanagan long before COVID-19 came along. However, somewhat surprisingly since the pandemic forced businesses to close and unemployment in British Columbia to double, the issue of finding staff doesn't appear to have changed for many businesses.

In a recent survey released by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce, the top two major concerns were staffing and loss of revenue.

The survey found that 40 per cent of respondents said staffing was their single biggest issue along with 40 per cent who said unsurprisingly said lower revenue was their biggest concern. As the Vernon Chamber hasn't conducted a similar survey before the figures can't be compared to previous years.

However, the results are similar to a City of Vernon business survey from early 2019 where businesses said finding staff was their biggest problem, above highly publicized the issues caused by homelessness and crime.

With unemployment in the Thompson Okanagan at 8.1 per cent in October, compared to 4.9 per cent in 2019, logic would suggest companies shouldn't have issues with finding staff. The reality is quite different.

Just like the business owners whose hair she cuts, Matheson shares their frustrations.

"We've had a problem finding proper staff for a while," Matheson said.

The owner of Spruce Salon said the pandemic made matters worse with people deciding to leave the industry permanently and hair school graduates lacking hands-on training as the pandemic forced education online.

In an effort to combat the chronic shortage of staff Matheson launched an apprenticeship program where those enrolled commit to being with her for three years. While the timing wasn't great – her lease started April 1 two weeks after her business was forced to close under COVID rules – she says the move was key for her business to retain quality staff in the future.

In Kelowna, Justin Rawn works for Platinum Recruiting finding staff for clients throughout the Thompson Okanagan.

"Finding staff in the Okanagan is one of the most common challenges for every business we speak with," Rawn said.

The business development and marketing manager said while his position does create bias – clients wouldn't come to him if they didn't have a problem finding staff – surprisingly the pandemic hasn't really changed the situation.

"As far as higher-level positions go, it's a relatively similar story," Rawn said. "I wouldn't say there was a shocking difference."

While the Vernon Chambers survey was tiny, 49 businesses responded, its findings fit with a much larger Canada wide survey.

An October survey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found that 39 per cent of businesses said staffing was a major concern during COVID-19.

Answering the question as to why it's difficult to get staff is no easy feat, but there are theories. The federal government's Canada Emergency Response Benefit, known as CERB, being one of them.

Basic human psychology, combined with looking at the dollar amounts would suggest there would be a percentage of people that would take a slightly reduced amount of income and not work.

And it's something the Chamber of Commerce sees.

"There is still a lot of incentive for employees to stay at home," Greater Vernon Chamber general manager Dan Proulx told iNFOnews.ca. "We're seeing that across the board... it's a hindrance when you're having trouble as an employer trying to bring people into the labour market and their choice is... (to) sit and home and receive a government subsidy."

Proulx said a survey a labour study should be done that asks employees what is preventing them from coming back to work?

Proulx also said 42 per cent of businesses that responded to the survey were claiming the government's low-wage subsidy but the way the subsidy worked created issues. The Chamber manager said businesses have to employ people and pay them first, then claim back the money from the government. Having those funds in advance created difficulties for businesses strapped for cash.

While CERB may have a role to play in employers' staffing issues there are other prominent factors at play.

"It's difficult to attract a labour market to this area (when it's) not necessarily affordable to live here," Proulx said. "Some of our respondents say the employees that they do have are struggling to find affordable housing."

And even for jobs that pay well, other issues exist for employers seeking highly skilled staff.

For example, while Kelowna may have a hi-tech hub, finding a senior developer is no easy feat.

"The talent pool hasn't kept up with the business growth and demand (from) Kelowna and the surrounding area," Rawn said.

While it's not easy to pinpoint the reason employers struggle finding staff – especially during a pandemic – Matheson does point to one human factor. The attitude that some new hair school grads have.

"There is an expectation (for) brand new employees on what they think they should be getting, without necessarily having the experience," Matheson said. "They want immediate satisfaction."


To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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