By Stephen Petrick
This is the second in a series of stories the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times intends to run to address how a labour shortage is affecting our communities. This story looks at how the private businesses, and particularly restaurants and resorts, are dealing with a lack of available workers.
An ominous message appeared recently on the Facebook page of Minden-based business Godfathers Pizza.
“We regret to inform you that as of Friday, July 29th we will be closing our doors temporarily due to a staff shortage,” the post read. “We are currently hiring for all positions in the hopes to be operating as usual in the near future.”
A post on the Facebook page of The Mill Pond restaurant in Carnarvon pointed at the same problem.
“There’s the shortage of workers,” wrote owner Brad Archer in an Aug. 1 post. “How does this affect small business you say? Well without workers we can’t provide the service that our customers want. This is why I haven’t been open nights during the week.”
In an interview later with the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times, Archer said he has a healthy customer base, but due to a lack of workers this summer he’s been staying closed on Mondays and closing at 3 p.m. on Tuesday to Thursday. The shortage of workers, he says, means he can’t operate during the lucrative dinner hours.
“In Haliburton County the pool of employees to choose from is only so big. Everywhere you go there’s a help wanted sign. I think it’s a sign of the times.”
He’s right. Statistics show Haliburton County has a slim pool of available workers, forcing business to close at unusual hours and sacrifice potential income despite their location in a bustling summer cottage community.
The specific factors driving this shortage aren’t all entirely clear yet, but the issue needs to be treated with some urgency, many business leaders say. If not, independent small businesses – the kind that give Haliburton County its unique tourist-town charm – are at risk of closing and crippling the economy.
“It’s beyond crisis,” said Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob Gaudette, who works with small business owners and is seeing the help wanted signs seemingly everywhere. “And it’s heading into catastrophic impacts.”
The working demographic can’t keep up with growth
A deep dive into statistics on Haliburton County’s labour situation reveals some challenging trends, said Jennifer Lamantia, executive director of the Peterborough-based Workforce Development Board, which studies the labour pool in a region that also includes Northumberland, Kawartha Lakes and the Highlands.
She pointed out that recent census data showed that Haliburton Highlands has experienced a 13 per cent population growth between 2016 and 2021, a rate that’s significantly higher than overall provincial population growth of 5.8 per cent.
But Haliburton has an older population. The percentage of Haliburton residents who are 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 means there’s a growing number of people in Haliburton County who need services, but businesses don’t have a large employee pool compared to other regions. They then struggle to hire new people who can provide the additional services needed to capitalize on this growth.
Lamantia says a deeper dive into statistics shows even more troubling concerns.
She says the most dominant age group within the 15 to 64 age demographic are people on the upper side, aged 55 to 64. Province-wide data shows that 68 per cent of people in this age range are working, but Haliburton County’s rate is 10 per cent lower, at 58 per cent, Lamantia says.
So it appears as though Haliburton County has a higher-than-normal rate of early retirees – or people not working for other personal reasons.
“People in that age category are making a conscious decision to not work, I’m guessing,” she said. “For an employer in Haliburton, it’s about how do they attract younger people to the region? But then again, if they can’t, how do they attract that older segment to start working again?”
Gaudette is exploring the unknows, so the Highlands can find its way out of the crisis. The chamber put out a survey to community members, to sense how the pandemic has altered its workforce. The survey targeted people who’ve made a conscious choice to leave the workforce; it asked what was holding them back from returning to the workforce and what industry they left.
But finding respondents in this hidden demographic, proved to be tough. Gaudette said the survey was sent out through a newsletter and other media channels, but it didn’t yield enough respondents to give a definitive sense why workers aren’t available to the extent they were before the pandemic.
“We thought there’d be an end point where we’d resume normal economics,” he said. “But now it doesn’t look like there’s that same promise and it’s a heavier burden for folks.”
He suspects there are reasons why workers have not returned to work, after the rough pandemic years. Any information on that would be helpful as the community charts a new path.
“What supports and income are people living off that is enabling them to not be forced off into the labour market?” he asked. “Is it savings or investments? Did they sell property? Do they have social supports? Are they living off Mom and Dad? I don’t know.”
Gaudette meets regularly with other business leaders in the community, including Haliburton County’s new economic development director Scott Ovell and Haliburton County Economic Development Corporation executive director Patti Tallman. They discuss issues impacting the community and the labour shortage almost always comes up.
“(Employees) can pick and choose because there are so many jobs out there,” said Tallman, whose organization supports job creation and business growth.
She said the labour situation in the Highlands now is so tough on employers, that employees have a lot of power. “Some employers are to a point where they say, ‘ok so, when can you work?’ They’re trying to fit people into their schedule so they can get some employees.”
They can’t work here if they can’t live here
When the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times asked business leaders to propose solutions to the labour shortage, one answer came up constantly; housing.
“I hear of people not being able to buy a home because it’s so expensive and no rentals are available for people to re-locate here,” Tallman said. “There are people who’d prefer to move to a rural community and live cottage life, as opposed to living in a city, and there’s no where to go.”
But solutions are being discussed. Tallman said she knows of a construction company that has bought housing for its employees, so out-of-towners who are interested in working here have a place to stay as they complete a project.
Lamantia says her organization speaks to employees and, anecdotally, she’s also hearing that a lack of available housing is an issue, as is transportation, as many people don’t have the means to get to an employer, or get to a school where they can gain new skills as they look for employment.
Gaudette has heard these concerns, too, and hopes the community will address factors that may be preventing people from even starting to job hunt in Haliburton County.
“The barrier used to exist at the finish line,” he said. “Now that barrier has moved to the beginning. We can’t get people to the door. How do we get folks that live here already what they need, so they can engage in the workforce?”
Even some of Haliburton County’s most well-known and established tourism businesses are facing challenges.
Andrea Hagarty has been with Minden’s Bonnie View Inn for about 30 years and is still helping out, although she recently sold the resort to a new ownership group. She said the Inn has faced hiring challenges this year – and while other years have provided challenges – the Inn is going to greater lengths now to ensure the resort is well staffed.
This year, the Inn struggled to find an additional chef that would have allowed the resort to offer indoor dining. As a result, it’s only offering dining on its patio.
“I searched for a team where we would offer free room and board and they could come live on site,” she said. “We put it out everywhere. I advertised at colleges for chefs and so many places and we were unable to fill.
“It’s not that we’re not offering money – we’re willing to be competitive, with the offer of free room and board, but I just haven’t found anyone to even offer it to.”
She said, from her experience, the labour market is different now than in years past, because more people that approach the Inn want part-time work, as opposed to full-time. That puts more pressure on senior staff to train people, who may only be there for a few months. She also said it’s a challenge to find full time workers for the more experienced, senior positions.
The owner of another big Haliburton County tourism institution, Sir Sam’s Ski/Ride, says he’s been able to fill positions, but he’s also aware that there’s a shortage of workers and he must make his offers competitive.
“We’re ok, but it hasn’t been easy,” said Doug Wilkinson, the new owner, who has overseen a revitalization of the chalet and is re-branding the massive venue as Eagle View.
As summer nears an end, Wilkinson said he’ll soon need to make a plan to ensure he’s got about 120 employees for the winter ski season.
He’d like to see the community host more job fairs and more programs that can encourage students to enter the workforce. He also realizes, he has to think about how his business can be a good and enticing employer in a competitive market.
“We have to tell ourselves that it’s not just pay, it’s the type of work you’re providing, the benefits you’re providing,” he said, explaining that the hill offers its employees a seasonal ski pass, hoping the offer will attract workers.
A new model for sharing employees
Haliburton business leaders say a new model for managing hospitality employees could soon be adopted in the industry here.
Through her work with HCDC, Tallman recently visited a Peterborough-area employer to see how it was benefitting from Community Futures Development Corporation support programs.
She learned the employer has put their employees into a pool of available workers that is shared by four similar businesses in the city. Those employees are then invited to work shifts at any of the five business, when needed.
It’s an opportunity for the employees to gain more hours and perhaps the equivalent of a full-time job through a combination of different employers, each of which may not be able to provide more than part-time hours.
“If you have three bartenders and one is working a day shift, maybe they want to take an evening shift to do a wedding for someone else,” Tallman said, explaining how it works.
Wilkinson and Hagarty say that model is already happening here, but not in any formalized way. They say some of their employees juggle multiple jobs between different employers. It seems to be a win-win, as the businesses need the workers and those workers want additional income.
Tallman believes her organization, along with others such as the Haliburton County and the Chamber of Commerce, could play a role in setting up an employee-sharing arrangement – perhaps a website – for a group of private employers, who would post what shifts they have available. This, she believes, could help small businesses fill positions, but it wouldn’t solve every problem.
There would have to be a healthy number of available workers in the system and Gaudette pointed out it would raise some legal questions, such as whether the workers in the system would be considered an employee, bound to certain hours, or contractors.
But few, if any, are disputing that creative solutions are needed to address the issue. If not, Haliburton County’s beautiful resorts, restaurants and stores will continue to face stress, resulting in economic hardships and the spiraling effects that come with that, such as burnout and mental health issues.
Gaudette says if the labour issue isn’t addressed soon, Haliburton County’s at risk of losing the small, independent businesses that give it its charm.
“Why go downtown in this community and buy local goods?” he asked, rhetorically. “Because it’s about being in a beautiful downtown and interacting with people. There’s value in that exchange. You can talk to someone with local knowledge. I feel that becomes unaffordable when you’re all competing for the same 10 employees.
“We’ve been in crisis since the start of the pandemic, but it hasn’t felt like there’s been a crisis response to these issues.”