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Alberta tourist towns struggle with staff shortages as restrictions ease

Even with COVID-19 restrictions easing in Alberta and abroad, the province’s tourist towns are struggling to attract international workers. 

The Job Resource Centre, which operates in Banff and Canmore, is putting up postings and “getting zero response,” said its director, Michel Dufresne. 

Prior to March 2020, on a good day the job centre might see 50 to 100 clients, Dufresne said. But now a good day is about 10 people.  

Hotel, retail, restaurant, sightseeing and ski resorts in towns like Banff and Canmore rely heavily on foreign workers, he said, and pre-pandemic they made up nearly half their workforce. 

He said people in those types of organizations are planning for the summer — when huge volumes of tourists arrive — and they’re worried.

“What we used to call a staff shortage that’s common here in Banff and Canmore …right now it’s not a shortage anymore, it’s a drought. It’s a staff drought,” he said. 

alberta tourist towns struggle with staff shortages as restrictions ease
The iconic three sisters overlooking Canmore, an Alberta city experiencing a staff “drought” as employers are desperate for workers. (Rob Easton/CBC)

“I keep saying it’s going to get better, it’s going to get better. But I’ve been saying that for six months now.” 

Dufresne said the job centre starts getting more responses when students finish university around the end of April. 

“People would arrive in May. But what’s going on is that we’re not getting these inquiries we used to get.” 

He said it’s possible the shortage could be caused, in part, by the slow processing time of applications for international workers. 

CBC News recently obtained data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada that shows a backlog of hundreds of thousands of temporary residence applications.

It can take 12 to 18 months for a foreign worker to arrive in the country after they’re selected by an employer, said Trevor Long, president of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association and manager at the Rimrock Resort Hotel. 

“We need this process to be expedited,” he said. 

Long said there are several affordable housing projects underway in Banff, but more is needed as it is a crucial component of the staffing shortage. 

“Certainly the housing in Banff sometimes is not ideal,” he told the Calgary Eyeopener.

He also said additional incentives — like subsidized housing, subsidized or free meals in place, ski passes, free access to local public transportation and incentives for longevity of employment — could lure workers back. 

“We desperately have to fill our labour force immediately. We’re coming out of the pandemic calling it a time for economic recovery. But if we don’t have the staff, we’re going to have a tough time recovering.” 

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