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Jack Knox: Busking for job applicants on a greying island

Melissa Cottam strapped on a guitar and strummed in front of her Cobble Hill restaurant, Moo’s Pizza, in an effort to attract job applicants
Melissa Cottam of Cobble Hill turned to busking to try to find employees for her business, Moo's Pizza. COURTESY MELISSA COTTAM

Desperate to hire staff, Melissa Cottam resorted to busking for resumés.

For real. Two weeks ago she strapped her guitar around her neck, stood in front of her Cobble Hill business, Moo’s Pizza, and began strumming a tune. Except instead of asking for money, the hand-lettered sign on her open guitar case urged passersby to drop in employment applications.

“I think I was playing Take This Job and Shove It,” she says. Gotta love irony.

The ploy worked(ish). Faced with trying to fill six vacancies — delivery staff, kitchen help, someone to answer the phones — she was able to hire three people after she posted a photo of her busking stunt on Facebook. Hiring three is a minor miracle in the current market, where it feels almost as hard to attract pizza drivers as ferry captains.

“I’m at a loss,” Cottam says. These days, not even decent wages, benefits and working conditions are enough to lure applicants. “We’re just not getting any resumés anymore.”

That leaves Cottam — and every other employer around — posing the same question: Where did all the workers go?

Part of the answer: They retired, and there simply aren’t enough young people to replace them, particularly in a place that skews as grey as Vancouver Island. It’s not just that the fish aren’t biting, but that there aren’t that many fish in the sea.

Labour Day is an appropriate time to look at the numbers.

Officially, Greater Victoria’s jobless rate in July was 4.3 per cent — ultra-low, historically, though it still works out to 9,700 people in an area where jobs were going begging.

Hold on, though. Victoria’s 4.3 per cent rate only applies to the 225,000 people in the area’s labour force — the total number of people either working or wanting to find work. It’s much lower if you add in all the students, retirees and others who swell the Victoria area’s over-age-15 population to 355,000, or the children who bring the total up to 397,000.

But look at the same numbers from another perspective: Only 215,000 of those 397,000 residents — or 54 per cent — have paying jobs. Barely half. Most of the rest are either A) in diapers, B) in school, or C) in Tim Hortons with their retired friends, grumbling that nobody wants to work anymore.

There will always be a certain number of people who game the system (hands up if you remember the UI Ski Team T-shirts from the 1970s, when the slopes were full of people who would work just long enough to qualify for Unemployment Insurance, as it was known prior to 1996). And there’s no shortage of anecdotes about frustrated employers hiring people who simply don’t show up, or who flake out upon discovering that their jobs require them to, um, work.

But there’s no getting away from basic demographics, either. Not only does Greater Victoria have a high number of older people, but it has few young ones. This is the only large city in Canada with a birth rate under 1.0. There simply aren’t enough people entering the workforce to make up for the baby boomers who are aging out.

That’s not going to change soon, either; the 2021 census showed 56,000 people in the Victoria area between the ages of 55 and 64, but only 42,000 aged 15 to 24. The next cohorts get even smaller; the census showed only 32,000 under age 10.

It’s wise to be careful about labour statistics. (Those who wonder how there can be 900,000 Canadians collecting Employment Insurance during a labour shortage should note that only a little over two-thirds of August’s recipients were getting regular benefits. Most of the rest were on maternity leave or deemed too sick to work. Also, people collecting regular benefits include those who are in EI-approved job-training programs or otherwise deemed a bad fit for certain positions; while recipients are required to seek and accept any offer of suitable employment, several factors determine what jobs are considered suitable, including working conditions and wages, commuting time and hours of work.)

Still, the numbers should make us uneasy. What do they mean for the future? Maybe it will be like some of the small coastal communities where a dearth of young people means it is left to seniors, not kids, to bus tables, stock shelves and do what we have come to think of as after-school jobs, just to maintain basic services. (Note that last year two dozen Sechelt retirees temporarily volunteered as dishwashers, cooks, servers and so on to keep seven staff-strapped restaurants open, with their employers making donations to food banks and other charities in lieu of pay.)

Maybe, like Melissa Cottam, we’ll have to play a different tune.