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Hiring is a hassle: Local employers limited by lack of staff

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Cathy Dobson

Eric Parsons normally operates his two Coffee Culture locations with a staff of 35. But finding new employees is so tough he’s been coping with only 22 for months.

“I think times have changed,” he says about the local labour pool. “A lot of people don’t have flexibility. They want ‘me time.’ Some won’t work weekends and, for the first time, (college) students keep telling me they can’t work afternoons because of their school schedule.”

Before the pandemic, staffing shortages were much less of a problem, Parsons said.

“I love my staff and I worry about burning out those I have.”

In order to cope, he’s shortened his restaurants’ hours and works seven days a week himself. He increased wages a couple of months ago.

“I really think Covid changed attitudes,” said Parsons.

He is not alone in his search for staff. With the latest unemployment figure hovering around 4.3%, there’s seldom been so few people looking for work in Sarnia-Lambton. In June – the last time local figures were released – there were only 2,800 Sarnia-Lambton residents looking for work, the lowest since at least 2006, says Laura Greaves, executive director at the Sarnia-Lambton Workforce Development Board.

“I expect there are more people looking for work this fall but I’ve never heard from so many employers having trouble finding employees,” she said. In particular, the restaurant, hospitality and retail sectors are challenged, but every workplace is struggling to hire and retain employees. “I’ve heard anecdotally about positions that are difficult to fill in manufacturing too,” Greaves said.

Don Anderson is general manager at the Sarnia Lambton Business Development Corporation and talks to a lot of local entrepreneurs. Many are struggling to return their businesses to pre-pandemic hours because they can’t get staff, he said.

“It really leaves me scratching my head. There’s no clear and easy answer.”

Anderson suspects that the constant opening and closing of restaurants and retail during COVID-19, combined with relatively low wages, prompted many workers in those sectors to rethink their careers.

“Could it be that they felt more fulfilled staying at home and are considering work and lifestyle issues more?” Anderson asked. “I do know that this is causing real stress among business owners. We are going to have to look at many factors that could be part of the problem.”

He thinks a lack of affordable housing in Sarnia could be making it difficult to attract new workers here.

Greaves said she believes local employees are leaving the workforce for three specific reasons: They have reached retirement age; the pandemic convinced them to take an early retirement; or they have re-evaluated their career choice during the pandemic, changed sectors or gone back to school. Her office recently surveyed more than 250 local workers asking what motivates them to stay with an employer. The survey reflects how important the level of pay and benefits are to hiring and keeping employees.

“But my sense is that workplace culture is really the most important,” said Greaves. “People talk about liking their co-workers and liking their boss. That could be number one.”

She suggests employers throw their net wide when looking for new staff.

“Don’t just depend on word of mouth. Use social media, get help from local career centres. “This is really a job seekers market right now and they have lots of options, so think about whether it’s worth increasing the hourly wage you offer rather than bearing the incredible expense of staff turnover.”

Want to know more? A panel of local employers will discuss how they are able to retain staff at a lunchtime event on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club. The Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce, the SLBDC and the SLWDB are co-hosting. Details at www.slchamber.ca.

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