The Sea to Sky Corridor is a stretch of river deltas, mountain passes, and farming valleys stretching from Lions Bay in the South to D’Arcy in the North, and connected by the beautiful and scenic Sea to Sky Highway. Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton are the three most populous communities in the Corridor, and are served by WorkBC from its two Employment Service Centres in Squamish & Whistler.
Squamish is currently experiencing radical and unprecedented growth. This dramatic rise in population, tourist visits, and new residential construction has positive implications for employment opportunities in the community.
Squamish’s Economic Background
Historically, the labour market in Squamish has experienced fluctuation due to regional economic activities in Forestry. Forestry was the economic backbone of Squamish for nearly a century, and the small town was the most forestry‐dependent community in the Sea to Sky Corridor, relying on 20% of its income from the industry. The town weathered a significant blow when Interfor and Western Forest Products closed between 2004 and 2006, cutting 400 jobs in the region.
The 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler brought a welcome boom to the local economy, with investment in infrastructure creating temporary employment opportunities in road-building, construction, and hospitality. Following the Olympics, Squamish experienced a higher than average unemployment rate (the official Squamish website reported the local unemployment rate as 8.1% in March 2010.
More recently, upgrades to the highway, the high cost of housing in Vancouver, and effective marketing of Squamish as a tourist destination have marked Squamish as a place to live, work, and play for hundreds of people moving to the area.
Current Economic & Population Growth
Squamish is among the fastest growing communities in the province. From 2006-2011 the population increased by 14.67% compared to a national growth rate of 5.9% and a provincial growth rate of 7%. Projections estimate the population will grow to upwards of 30,000 by 2031.
During the same period Squamish had the fastest growing job market of all the communities in the Lower Mainland including the Sea to Sky Corridor. Major factors cited are the opening of Quest University and the expansion of health care services (Vancouver Sun, Sept 17, 2104). The Lower Mainland region of which Squamish is included enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the province, and one of the lowest in the country (5.7% as of April 2016).
However, the desirability and rapid growth presents both affordability and labour challenges for Squamish. The influx of home buyers from Vancouver has driven the price of housing up for both buyers and renters in Squamish, shifting the demographics dramatically from long time residents to new arrivals who either commute to Vancouver, work from home, or are self-employed.
The benchmark price of an apartment in Squamish, $330,900 is up 54 per cent from 2011 and 20% from 2015. Townhouse prices have jumped 67% from 2011 and 23% from 2015 to $575,500. The price of single family houses has increased 53% since 2011 and 24% since 2015. Between 2014 and 2015 the number of building permits rose by 77%, almost doubling the number of units created.
The high cost of housing, dropping birth rate, low immigration, and tighter restrictions on the temporary foreign worker program are combining to create the “perfect storm” of labour shortages in the Sea to Sky Corridor, especially in the Tourism and Hospitality sector. In a recent poll of downtown Squamish business owners, over 33% said that finding employees was the biggest challenge facing their business. Chefs and cooks are in especially short supply. Employers like the Sea to Sky Gondola are using creative strategies to recruit and retain employees, such as increasing starting wages and offering a free shuttle service so people without a car can get to work.
In 2015, the District of Squamish interviewed 126 local businesses and found that more than 63% expected the number of full time staff to increase in the next three years. The pay for these full time jobs is consistent with provincial averages. Employers indicated that the average hourly wage paid for skilled/professional staff was $32/hour while the semi-skilled and entry-level employees were paid an average of $19/hour and $15/hour, respectively. According to this report, the percentage of the workforce that is entry-level is 17%.
Currently, the construction industry is the largest employer of Squamish residents, accounting for 14% of the community’s experienced labour force in 2011. This is twice as high as the Vancouver rate of 7%. Retail trade ranks second, and accommodation and food service ranks third. These three industries employ more people in Squamish compared to Vancouver and provincial averages.
- Sea to Sky Gondola – 170 employees
- Walmart – 107
- Nesters Market – 140
- Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company – 152
- Quest University – 119
- Save on Foods – 105
- Squamish Terminals Ltd. – 117
- Home Depot – 80
- Carney’s Waste Systems – 87
The Top Squamish Public Sector Employers are:
- School District – 395 employees
- Vancouver Coastal Health – 400
- District of Squamish – 193
- Sea to Sky Community Services – 180
The Resort Municipality of Whistler has a permanent population of 9,824. Currently the employment rate is 81.1% as compared with the provincial average of 61.6%. Most of the workforce (37%) is employed in sales and service occupations, including accommodation, food services, arts and recreation services. The median income noted in the last Census was $29,550 which is higher than the BC median income of $24,867.
Whistler has over 2,702 seasonal residents (estimated) and 11,522 second-home owners (estimated). Seventy-nine per cent of Whistler workers live in Whistler. It is estimated that an additional 3672 commuting employees further support the tourism labour needs of the resort. The combination of residents, visitors and additional workers boosts the yearly daily average population equivalent to 31,794 (Population and Demographics, 2011).
Seasonal Labour Market
In 2013, go2hr completed the BC Resort Community Labour Market Strategic Analysis Report. This project explored gaps related to the specific challenges associated with the highly seasonal nature of the tourism sector in BC, particularly in rural and resort communities. The community of Whistler acted as a case study for the research project. The summary report confirmed that:
The demand for tourism and hospitality labour in Whistler fluctuates greatly:
- There is high demand for seasonal labour
- There is heavy reliance on in-migration to supply the local labour market
- There is high competition for shoulder and off season jobs
Challenges in Recruiting Seasonal Workers
Due to the seasonality and use of international workers, employment retention has not typically been a focus for most employers. That said, employers faced bigger challenges recruiting new employees throughout 2015 and this trend is continuing into 2016. These challenges are attributed to several factors including:
- Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. The changes implemented by the previous Conservative government in June 2014 have created barriers for Whistler employers who rely in temporary workers. First, the number and availability of workers has been reduced by limiting applications for entry-level employment in the accommodation and food service sectors. Second, the increased screening requirements make it harder for employers to make the case for temporary foreign workers. And finally, the increased cost for individual applications (from $275 to $1000 per worker) has placed financial burden on many small to medium-sized employers in Whistler.
- A shortage of affordable and suitable accommodation. While Whistler enjoyed improved housing as a result of the Winter Olympics (legacy housing from the Athlete’s Village) and there has been an increase in residential condo developments since 2010, there is a shortage of affordable rental housing for workers in the community. The trend of renting out accommodation through Airbnb services is one reason that rental housing has been reduced. Of the units that are available, rent has increased significantly. A one bedroom was $1,173 last year. This year it’s $1,376 — the highest in the last five years. Similarly, a two bedroom is $1,812 this year compared to $1,672 last year — a big difference for those making minimum wage. The lack of affordable housing has resulted in many workers leaving the community, not because of lack of employment, but because they did not have a place to live. Job seekers reported to us that employers were reluctant to offer employment if housing had not been secured, therefore job seekers left to other resort communities in the BC interior to find employment.
- The low Canadian dollar has had a positive impact on Whistler, with increased visits in 2015 summer and 2015-2016 winter seasons. The last few years were dampened by the slow economic recovery in the United States; however this year the picture is different. In February 2016 Whistler Blackcomb reported strong revenue growth with a first quarter earnings of $17.2 million, an increase of 68% over the first quarter in 2015. In addition, WB noted that total visits for the year to February 8, 2016 were 1.14 million, representing the highest year to date visits in the company’s history and an increase of 21% over visits in the same date in the previous year. This increased demand requires more workers to provide services including food and beverage, ski school instruction, retail and accommodation services.
Professional Development Opportunities
It is also important to note that the labour market in Whistler is narrow and professional advancement opportunities within Whistler do not surface often as employees typically stay in these positions for a long time. Professional and higher skilled jobs in stable, year-round occupations do not surface very often. When they do, competition to fill them is high. In an effort to keep Whistler a pristine mountain resort that draws visitors and home buyers, a building cap was imposed by the RMOW and there are many restrictions regarding the types of businesses that are considered appropriate for Whistler. All of these factors contribute to a narrow labour market.
Self-employment is a viable and proven successful alternative to employment in the Whistler area, although start-up costs can be high given the cost of real estate and commercial leases in the community. Self-employment helps many to find sustainable attachment to the labour market. It also provides a solution for those individuals living in rural areas and who are challenged by small labour markets. This includes individuals living in Pemberton, Mount Currie, D’arcy, and Birken. Small home-based businesses and farming are common in these communities and construction brings opportunity on a seasonal basis. Transportation is expensive or unavailable and is often dangerous in the winter.
Whistler is a considerably homogenous population and visible minorities comprise just 5.6 per cent of the population. English is the dominant language in Whistler and while there is an international presence in Whistler, English is spoken by most. Many immigrants and permanent residents in Whistler are from English speaking countries such as the UK and Australia. The top five languages spoken in Whistler’s immigrant homes are: Spanish (2.5%), Tagalog (2.1%), German (2.1%), Korean (1.8%) and Biscayan languages (1.8%).
The workforce in Whistler is young when compared to the province. 57 per cent of the population in Whistler and Pemberton is between the ages of 20 and 44 and the lifestyle in both communities is highly focused on outdoor recreation.