Service sector turns to foreign workers

Mexico and Philippines prime resource for unskilled workers in Alberta, B.C.

The labour market in Western Canada is extremely tight. But it’s not just the construction and oil and gas industries feeling the crunch — the service sector has also been hit hard by the labour shortage.

Calgary-based Humpty’s Restaurants has been spending $4,000 a month on recruitment advertising and the family restaurant chain is lucky if it gets one applicant a month, said president Don Koenig.

“If they have a pulse, you hire them. It’s not a matter of quality, it’s a matter of people right now,” he said.

The lack of employees made the chain, with nine corporate and 42 franchise locations throughout Alberta, cut back on hours in some locations. Opening late and closing early wasn’t a viable long-term option, so Humpty’s turned to Mexico for workers to fill the shortage.

After receiving temporary foreign worker permits, a team went to Mexico in July to interview a short list of 55 applicants.

“Normally we wouldn’t have to go down, but for the first group we did because we wanted to get a feeling for the quality of people,” he said.

The quality turned out to be quite high. The Mexican workers all have at least four years of post-secondary education and one is even an engineer, said Koenig.

The restaurant hired 17 of them, 16 of whom will work as cooks and one who will work as an assistant manager. As part of the temporary foreign worker program, the restaurant has to pay the workers the industry minimum, which is $10 to $11.50 an hour, but Koenig expects many of them will end up earning more.

“These people are highly skilled and very motivated and well educated,” he said.

The 16 cooks will be spread out evenly among eight corporate locations, providing an extra two employees at each location. While the process cost the company $30,000, including airfare for the workers to and from Mexico and help in finding accommodation in Alberta, the fact the restaurant has 17 workers guaranteed for 12 months makes it worth it, said Koenig.

“We’ve had 13 of them here now for a month and they’re just excellent workers. Our staff loves working with them and keeps telling us to bring in more,” he said.

The restaurant plans to do just that. It still needs more employees and this time the restaurant is turning to the Philippines for 12 more workers. Though changes to the temporary foreign worker program mean employers don’t have to advertise a job opening for as long, more employers are applying for the permits, slowing down the process.

So while it only took about two weeks to get the permits processed for the Mexican workers, it will take about six to seven months to do the same for the Philippine workers.

The length of time it takes to process a request is why the British Columbia and Yukon Hotels’ Association (BCYHA) wants its member hotels to get a jump on the busy season, said CEO James Chase.

The hotel industry has been facing a shortage, especially of housekeeping staff, for the last few years, said Chase. But the hotels have made it work with either staff working longer hours or pulling in employees from other positions, whether or not they were a fit, he said.

“Now we’re reaching that threshold where those different approaches are starting to wane and the crisis is starting to emerge. Our expectation is that this coming summer, there is going to be a chronic shortage. We’re trying to get ahead of that,” he said.

If a hotel were to wait until May to apply for a temporary foreign worker permit for the summer, it wouldn’t be approved until after the busy season had finished, said Chase.

Since each hotel has to apply individually, the BCYHA is trying to organize its more than 500 member hotels to apply for up to 300 temporary foreign workers from the Philippines to fill the housekeeping positions. The association will then send the applications to Service Canada en masse in the hope the government will recognize that the hotel industry is facing a chronic shortage of housekeeping staff.

“Each individual employer for each individual position shouldn’t have to go through this onerous process,” said Chase.

By last month, the association had received about 30 applications from member hotels and it hopes to have 100 by the end of January.

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