‘Serious labour shortage’ holding Alberta’s tourism sector back: industry advocates

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Alberta’s tourism sector has a “serious labour shortage” that can threaten its long-term viability, a new labour study has found.

The Tourism Industry Association of Alberta (TIAA) says most businesses are reporting significant difficulty in finding personnel to fill vacant positions just months away from the start of Alberta’s peak tourism season.

According to the industry survey, recruitment, retention and “competition” from other sectors are further compounding labour issues and the inflation crunch.

“COVID-19 caused significant disruption to our tourism labour market,” said Darren Reeder, TIAA president, adding that nearly one million jobs were lost in the first eight weeks of the pandemic.

“Today, the sector continues to have much fewer workers than pre-pandemic times,” he said. “As a result, as pent-up travel demand rebounds, tourism businesses will not be able to likely meet the demand with their existing labour force.”

Carried out from November 2022 to March 2023, Tourism HR Canada worked with the TIAA to survey and consult businesses and Albertans while monitoring Statistics Canada data on job vacancies, number of travellers and employment figures.

The study aimed to find factors hindering growth of tourism in Alberta and recovery from the pandemic. It was presented Wednesday to industry leaders.

Ultimately, the report made 30 recommendations involving the provincial and federal levels of government, including:

  •  immigration streams and policies need to be more accessible for small and medium companies involved in tourism;
  •  reframing narratives of tourism employment to increase its attractiveness and competitiveness; and
  •  reducing barriers to careers in tourism, like lack of housing or transportation options.

For Reeder, labour shortages in the sector are nothing new, they were made “significantly worse” by the pandemic.

“We’ve not professionalized careers in tourism,” he added. “You ask people about tourism, many people would describe it as something they do in between their career pursuit or what I am doing with my education.

“This is very unlike what we see in Europe, where there are lifelong careers and professionalization [opportunities].”

He hopes the province works with post-secondary institutions to create more micro-credentials and streams to allow tourism workers to specialize and recognize their achievements.

Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada spokesperson, said 18,000 workers are needed in just the restaurant side of the sector in Alberta.

One of the most common concerns he hears from eateries and pubs is they lack staff in general, let alone seasonal workers. From a small to medium size business perspective, using immigration programs to attract foreign workers or temporary hires is out of reach.

“The big chains, they have that HR capability where they can actually use some of these immigration programs,” he explained. “The small little guys, it’s just too much red tape for them to access those programs.”

“There’s still a long ways to go to make this easier.”

As concerns with COVID-19 faded, the sector was largely carried by domestic travellers in 2021 and 2022, Reeder said. Now, as inflation eats into Canadians’ disposable income, the sector is already seeing a slight slowdown.

“The need for the overseas and international market to come back has never been more important,” he added. 

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