By Stephen Petrick
This is the third in a series of stories the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times is running this summer to explore how a labour shortage is affecting our communities. This story focuses on the summer recreational sector.
A young person looking for summer employment can do worse than Algonquin Outfitters. The tourism organization employs people to help customers enjoy canoe trips and guided hikes as well as to serve customers in several retail stores, sprinkled through cottage country.
Its website shows an image of smiling employees on a doc, above, text which proclaims it’s a great place to work if you “love the outdoors” or for employees with innovation and looking to “better themselves.”
All this adds to the puzzlement that Mark Sinnige has felt this summer, while trying to fill positions. Sinnige, the company’s head of human resources, says some candidates “ghosted interviews.” They were invited for a job interview but, without warning, didn’t show up.
“We might call and say, ‘hey, are you ok? Do you have COVID? Do you need anything?’” said Sinnige. “Even getting people to attend the interview now is a stretch.”
As previously reported in this series, Haliburton County has a slim pool of available workers compared to other Ontario regions. According to the local Workforce Development Board, the percentage of Haliburton residents between ages 15 to 64 – the age of people who tend to be in the workforce – is only 55 per cent, compared to the provincial average of about 65 per cent.
That slim labour pool making it difficult for local businesses to fill positions and offer services that can help them capitalize on the region’s recent population growth and amazing rural aesthetics.
Haliburton’s recreational sector is no different, as leaders of businesses that offer outdoor summer employment who spoke to the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times reported that filling positions this summer was more difficult than in years past, meaning those businesses are at risk of losing their ability to contribute to Haliburton’s normally vibrant economy.
The idea of skipping a job interview is foreign to Sinnige, who said he was a member of Generation X, the generation of people who came into adulthood in the 90s, when new jobs were scarce, and a worker was expected to be grateful for any chance of employment.
But, he acknowledged, times have changed, and now major employers like his struggle to find workers, perhaps owning to a large number of baby boom generation retirements and pandemic-related changes to the workforce. He said Algonquin Outfitters typically needs about 150 employees during the busy summer season. This year, it was about 10 per cent understaffed, meaning it had about 15 fewer workers than, ideally, needed, due to a lack of applicants.
Another renowned recreation business, Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserve, has also experienced candidates “ghosting” interviews.
“It’s a strain on us,” said general manager Tegan Legge. “We block off a whole hour of time and they don’t show up.”
Legge said, despite the ghostings, her business was able to hire enough people to get almost fully staffed this summer. However, there were some housekeeping positions that were never filled, which put extra strain on staff.
As the company began to realize the labour market was changing and cost of living was rising, it started to do extra things to recruit and retain staff. When gas prices began to skyrocket in spring, the company gave employees a $1 per hour raise immediately, instead of waiting until the end of year, when wages are typically given cost-of-living increases.
Legge said Haliburton Forest has also worked to ensure the wages they offer are competitive and there are perks for employees, such as benefits after six months of work and the opportunity to use the company’s amenities for their own recreation.
But she also believes there are issues that the county needs to work on over the long term, to ensure an employer, like hers, can recruit workers. She points out that the lack of affordable housing in the area, or a public transportation program that can help people get to work, impacts Haliburton Forest’s ability to find willing employees.
She said, several years ago, the company explored building a cul-de-sac with housing on its own property, so seasonal workers would have a place to stay, but the project was bogged down with government regulations and never went ahead.
She believes, if such a project was explored again, it could gain approval. “The government was not aware of the housing crisis at the time,” she said. “Now they’re more open to working with us.”
Algonquin Outfitters is trying to fight the labour shortage by marketing itself as an attractive place for an employer to work – hoping that the right messaging will attract would-be workers who realize they’re in a seller’s market and have some choice of where they want to work.
Sinnige said his company is working with a human resources consultant to revamp job ads that will better recruit workers, given that “the power has moved to the candidate, not the employer.”
“It’s less of ‘hey, here’s what we’re looking for.’ It’s more, ‘here’s what’s in it for you,’” he explained.
Sinnige added that his company has realized it really has to market itself as a great place for workers, as they get to work as part of a great team and be outdoors.
The leaders of some other Haliburton seasonal institutions reported that the summer went fine, but not without some labour struggles.
The Monarch Bible Camp hosts programs from May to August every year at its location outside of Norland. Its director, Teresa Ward, said this year it relied more heavily on volunteers and had to restrict its registration numbers, due to a staff shortages. To get some staff, however, it had to up its game with social media promotion. The camp hired a “social media officer” which helped recruit some employees.
Another big business, the YMCA’s Medeba summer camp program, made it through the year successfully, but, to do so, it needed to recruit employees from outside the area, plus relay on volunteers, said an official.
“This summer has not been out of the ordinary for us,” said executive director Steve Archibald.
But, Sinnige and Legge know that their businesses are dealing with a challenge that could hinder their future, despite the fact they’re both established institutions that are deeply engraved into the community.
Sinnige pointed out that Algonquin Outfitters has a store in Minden that may have to close on some days in September, due to a shortage of available workers. This would hurt its revenue and its contributions to the Haliburton economy.
“It’s something we’re worried about; it’s a concern,” he said. “We have to anticipate and look ahead. We’re doing everything we can.”
But, the good news, he says, is that if a person in Haliburton County wants a job, they shouldn’t have a problem finding one.
“For young people entering the workforce, this is a golden opportunity.”