Help wanted: B.C. employers hard-pressed to find low-wage employees

 

VANCOUVER — North Vancouver’s iconic Tomahawk Barbecue has closed for dinner four nights a week while owner Chuck Chamberlain tries to find kitchen help.

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In three months since losing several longtime cooks, his ads have drawn just 12 applicants and plenty of no-shows. The two that showed up for their scheduled interview were hired on the spot.

One new hire was scheduled to start a week ago on Saturday morning, but hasn’t shown up yet.

“Most of my chefs had been here more than 30 years, so I didn’t know hiring would be such a problem,” said Chamberlain, who has employees commuting from as far way as Port Moody. “Well it’s become such a problem that we have to close at four o’clock Monday through Thursday.”

Chamberlain is hardly alone.

The Noodle House on Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver shut down permanently a few weeks ago due to a chronic shortage of staff, and sporadic one-day restaurant closures are popping up all over the Metro Vancouver. In Vancouver, Aphrodite’s Organic Cafe has suspended all dinner service for the fall and winter due to a staff shortage.

“In almost 25 years in this business I’ve never seen it this bad,” said chef Robert Belcham, owner of Vancouver’s Campagnolo, Campagnolo ROMA and Monarch Burger. “We have an entire industry that is struggling to find quality cooks.”

Restaurants are feeling the squeeze, in part because diners are so sensitive to price increases, he explained.

“Fifteen years ago I was selling a salmon main course for $25 and today I’m still selling the salmon entrée for $25,” Belcham said. “What else can you buy for the same price as 15 years ago? Five years ago? Nothing.”

Much of the glamour attached to the industry by the rise of Food Network and celebrity chef worship has faded as young workers face the reality of working in a hot, busy kitchen.

“I’d love to be able to pay all my staff a $40,000 living wage, because we want them to be happy and stay,” said Belcham, who commutes from Maple Ridge. “It’s not an easy job and the shelf life of a line cook is maybe ten years and usually it’s only a couple of years. It’s a high-pressure job and you don’t get paid anything.”

Long-distance commuters appear loath to spend hours on transit for a kitchen worker’s wage, which typically starts under $20 an hour. Even Tomahawk’s kitchen wages of $20-plus an hour don’t line up with the cost of housing or the hassle of a long commute, Chamberlain said.

A recent report from Pad-mapper pegged the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver at $2,020 a month. A B.C. worker paid $20 an hour takes home $2,798 a month, according to the EasyTax online calculator.

While there are pockets of Metro Vancouver with more affordable rents — mainly Langley, Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and the Tri-Cities area — there are few if any vacancies close to Vancouver, according to a market report from Vancity. Rental vacancy rates in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and North Vancouver are under one per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The Vancity report notes that rents have increased at double the rate of wages since 2011.

Craigslist currently has 2,500 postings for jobs in Metro Vancouver in the food, beverage and hospitality category alone.

Several chefs pointed to the abrupt curtailment of the temporary foreign workers program for the gap between the number of qualified workers and the needs of the industry.

Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C., Restaurant and Foodservices Association, believes professional kitchens should be looking to a relatively untapped resource, namely workers sidelined by addiction, mental-health issues and bad luck.

“The industry isn’t going to be able to attract the same people they have in the past,” said Tostenson.

Businessman Brad Mills and Tostenson founded H.A.V.E. Culinary Training Society to teach kitchen skills to people living in the Downtown Eastside. A similar program called Knack is run by the Potluck Cafe Society.

“We need a disruptive model to get people into restaurant jobs,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would be really appreciative of a $17-an-hour job and you have an employee for life.”

H.A.V.E. has placed 900 workers over ten years, with an 80 per cent success rate.

It’s not just Metro Vancouver and the food-services industry that’s struggling to find workers.

B.C. has the highest job vacancy rate in the country at 3.1 per cent — 56,000 unfilled jobs — according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ Help Wanted report issued in August.

Those numbers are consistent with Statistics Canada estimates that pegged B.C.’s job vacancies at 68,000 earlier this year, with 81 per cent of the increase over the past two years concentrated in the Lower Mainland.

Sectors with rising job vacancy rates include oil and gas, construction, transportation, and hospitality.

“Vacancies aren’t so much a sector issue as a small-versus-large issue,” said Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist at the CFIB.

Small businesses such as mom-and-pop restaurants and independent construction firms are hit hardest by persistent vacancies, he said.

“If you only have five employees, that’s 20 per cent of your workforce,” he said. “If there is a lot of turnover, a lot of time and energy are required to look for, hire and train up new employees. It takes an awful lot of the business owner’s time.”

The pain is being felt by businesses that rely on younger workers, who are not already established in the real-estate market.

“For the last 18 months to two years, it’s been a growing challenge for companies to acquire talent at the rate they need it,” said Bill Tam, president and CEO of the B.C. Tech Association. “The pressure on salaries has escalated quite considerably in the Lower Mainland.”

The average salary across B.C. for all tech workers is $83,000, but in Metro Vancouver, tech firms pay a premium to entry level workers, between $70,000 and $85,000 a year.

“That’s a reflection of the pressures they face trying to fill their open positions.”

The B.C. Tech job board has between 1,200 to 1,500 jobs posted at any given moment.

Senior software developer and architect positions take the longest to fill and anyone coming to Vancouver from any market smaller than San Francisco, Boston or London will face some serious sticker shock when it comes to renting or buying a home.

“There is a real adjustment when you come from somewhere that doesn’t face the same cost of living reality that we do,” Tam said.

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