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The Globe and Mail

Help wanted: Worker shortage hits Vancouver retailers

Ed Des Roches, owner of the clothing chain Plum, is seen at one his business’s locations in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2017. The location has been without a manager for months.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

As the all-important holiday-shopping season approached, Vancouver clothing-store owner Ed Des Roches did the opposite of what most retailers do: he cut back opening hours.

Usually Mr. Des Roches, owner of the Plum clothing chain, would wait until January to shorten his hours, but, because of a staffing shortage, he has had no choice but to cut them at three of his locations.

"This problem seems to have hit in the last year, and it's a real challenge," said Mr. Des Roches, who's been in business with his wife since 1981. "We're not getting applicants – that's the big challenge. And when we do find people to make job offers to, we find they have three or four interviews in the same week."

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An increasing number of Vancouver retail businesses are experiencing a similar shortage, and for some, it's entering crisis mode. "Help wanted" signs are all over the city, which is enjoying an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent, low compared with the national average of 5.9 per cent (as of November, 2017, according to Statistics Canada).

For most, sales are strong. But without a front-line work force, they aren't able to operate at full capacity, which ultimately affects sales, growth and the local economy over all.

An obvious problem for Vancouver's job market is the high cost of housing, with a near-zero vacancy rate and median rent for a studio apartment at $1,750 as of November, according to North American apartment search site, PadMapper.

Because retail-sector jobs are generally low paying, the pool of available workers in a city known around the world for its unaffordability is limited. And commuting a long distance to a low-paying job simply isn't worth it.

Bakery owner Earle Morris, who's been in retail for 33 years and is thinking of cutting hours, says affordability plays a key role in the shortage. He leases space for his popular Bigsby the Bakehouse on the city's west side, where the 2017 average for a detached house is currently $3,430,496, according to data service SnapStats Publishing.

With tight profit margins in many small businesses, owners aren't in a position to pay workers more.

"Cooking in a restaurant is really hard work and the pay is not great," Mr. Morris said. "Kids in the neighbourhood don't need the money, and the kids on the east side who do need the money aren't willing to travel here."

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The federal government's cap a few years ago on the number of foreign workers also had an effect on the jobs market, particularly for quick-service restaurants, says Cameron Laker, chief executive officer of Mindfield, a recruiting company that specializes in the hourly work force. "That change put huge pressure on every person trying to hire front-line staff," he said.

Changing demographics are playing a role, too. Retail has often depended on the young, unskilled part-time worker, such as high-school and university students. But there are fewer young people today relative to the total population than compared with previous decades. In 1971, 19 per cent of the population was between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. By 2011, that cohort had dropped to 13 per cent. Statscan projects it will drop further, to 11 per cent by 2031.

Culturally, it's a different landscape than the days when parents told their children to go get a job, any job. The boomer generation is far wealthier than the previous generation. As a result, their kids have lives packed with activities, going to music lessons and martial-arts classes. As well, the competition for admission to universities is at an all-time high. Parents who are worried about their child's postsecondary education might discourage them from taking on a part-time job and instead focus on their studies.

Leah Markovitch, owner of Solly's Bagelry chain, says she's had young store clerks quit in August so they had time to relax before classes start. Ms. Markovitch has had to reduce her Kitsilano store operation to three days a week. She is currently running her Vancouver stores without managers and with fewer staff. As a result, she's working 16 hours a day, she says, trying to keep the stores going.

She says the loss of the foreign workers hit her hard, and by the summer of 2016, she noticed employees were getting harder to find. She's seen a marked difference in employee attitudes toward work hours over the 24 years she's been in business.

"They get bored. They don't want to do labour like they used to. I'm not saying everyone, but they don't like the fact they have to wash dishes and clean floors."

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David Ian Gray, founder and retail strategist at DIG360 Consulting, says retailers are going to have to adjust to the cultural shift if they are to survive and thrive. A good many people are wanting more from the job than just a wage, and if they have an interest, want a project to explore. He says this kind of employee development is generally lacking in retail.

Darren Dahl, marketing professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business echoes that assessment. But he doesn't underestimate the impact of the high cost of living in Vancouver. "That has to be the No. 1 issue," Dr. Dahl said. "All evidence would point to that."

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