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Jasper, Alta., tourism expected to rebound this summer, but businesses struggle to find workers

As the general manager of the Jasper SkyTram, Todd Noble has a great view of the Rocky Mountains. Despite that perk, he’s having trouble attracting employees. 

Noble typically needs to bring on up to 40 staff during the summer; this year, he’s still searching for up to 15 employees to work at the business that takes guests in the small Alberta town up the side of the mountain in a tram car.

And that could be a problem — while pandemic restrictions reduced attendance the last few years, this summer, Noble said he’s expecting to see pre-pandemic tourist levels of 150,000 to 160,000 guests.

“The frustration comes in where you’ve taken the time to recruit, you’ve taken the time to set up the interview, you’ve had the interview and then it just all seems to fall apart.”

A man with glasses and waring a black jacket stands in a cablecar.
Todd Noble, the general manager of the Jasper SkyTram, is expecting to see pre-pandemic attendance numbers this summer. But he’s not sure if he’ll have the staff to avoid service interruptions. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Workers hard to find

The problem is not an isolated one. Trevor Bamsey owns Rocky Mountain Collective, a cannabis shop in Jasper.

Right now, he needs between eight and 10 employees for his Jasper location; a “we’re hiring” sign is kept up all the time.

“We’re always looking for new applicants,” he said. “We’re fully staffed right now, but that changes on a whim … They’re coming and going quite a bit.”

Bamsey said the situation takes a toll.

“The time and the effort and the money that we put into training a great employee — and then all of a sudden, they’re just gone, like that.”

A man wearing a plaid shirt handles inventory inside a cannabis store.
Trevor Bamsey is the owner of Rocky Mountain Collective, a cannabis shop in Jasper. He’s also had difficulty hiring and retaining employees. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Owners, managers take on extra duties

Evy Mermingis, the manager of Bright Spot Family Restaurant, is looking for at least three servers and one cook. 

She hasn’t taken a vacation since before the pandemic because employees have been hard to find, so she works constantly.

“Seven days a week. Probably 10 to 12 hours a day, 16 in the summer.”

Bamsey and Mermingis said that despite the worker shortage, they will continue to run their businesses as best they can, but acknowledge that trying to compensate for not having all the employees they need can be demanding.

“I’ve been doing it a very long time so I’m pretty used to it,” Mermingis said. “But it does take a toll on you for sure.”

A woman wearing a black shirt and pants carries a tray of cups and glasses.
Evy Mermingis is the manager of Jasper’s Bright Spot Family Restaurant. She says a shortage of workers means managers need to take on more duties, something that takes its toll. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Housing limited in Jasper

Finding employees in the small town can often be a challenge. 

Mayor Richard Ireland said the local employment and education centre had 458 job postings as of early April in a town with a population of approximately 4,100.

Housing is notoriously limited, due to the fact that Jasper is in a national park, so town boundaries are set in stone. Because rent can be expensive, accommodations are sometimes included with jobs, but not always. This can make it difficult for workers to stay.

But Ireland says another factor at play this year is that workers who were habitually part of the workforce have vanished post-pandemic. 

“They just left and they haven’t returned in the same numbers.”

LISTEN | The struggle to find tourism workers in Alberta:

Radio Active8:21Alberta’s tourism industry is struggling to find workers

In the first eight weeks of the pandemic the tourism sector in Alberta lost nearly a million workers. Since then, the industry has been struggling to bring its workforce back to its earlier strength, For more information, Radio Active is joined by Darren Reeder, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta.

Tourist experiences may be different

Ireland said that 100 per cent of businesses in town are connected to the tourism or hospitality industry, either directly or indirectly. So a worker shortage may mean that the typical tourist experience may look a bit different this summer.

“For example, a hotel with a ‘no vacancy’ sign — that doesn’t mean that 100 per cent of the rooms are occupied. It means that they have sold all the rooms that they have cleaners to clean,” Ireland said.

“Similarly with restaurants, they may be closed at periods of time so that they can provide the service that the visitor expects when they are open — but they simply can’t be open all the hours that they would want.”

The ticket booth of the Jasper SkyTram can be seen with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
The Jasper SkyTram takes visitors up the side of a mountain. Because most businesses in town are connected to the tourism or hospitality industry, the mayor says a worker shortage means the typical tourist experience could look a bit different this summer. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Noble agrees that workers who might have come to Jasper without pause before the pandemic seem to be acting more cautiously now.

For that reason, he said service disruptions on the Jasper SkyTram may be a possibility.

“We are planning full hours. We are planning full services,” he said. “But we are having to taper the services at this point because of … the lack of staff now.” 

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