Sidney has long been favoured by the business community for its easy access to the airport and ferries along with a laid-back way of life.
However, local companies are reporting that they are being “prevented from servicing (their) customers” due to an increasingly unfavourable business climate. A diverse range of businesses, from retail shops and cafes to industrial workshops and cutting-edge tech companies, say that a lack of infrastructure is hampering their ability to operate.
“The factors impeding us are beyond our control. There is an acute labour shortage on the island due to the lack of affordable housing and transportation between Victoria and Sidney,” said Shelley Carlson, HR manager for Sea Star Chemicals, a company that has been in Sidney for 40 years, explains.
Like many companies, Sea Star Chemicals utilizes a shift system, starting at 6 a.m. With no bus service between Victoria and Sidney running this early, employees need to own and operate a car, something that is beyond many young entry-level workers’ means.
Denny Warner, executive director of the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, says her organization has lobbied BC Transit, and although they have tweaked their schedule, “It hasn’t been enough. They move slowly and do not interact enough with the business community.”
Due to staff shortages, some shops have had to cut their opening hours and other businesses now sponsor university events, use recruitment agencies, advertise across Canada and offer signing bonuses for low-level positions. BMT Group Services, an RV rental and truck sales company, reports it has had to double wages since starting trading and now advertise in Scotland for some jobs.
All of the companies we spoke to said they have tried to adapt to the conditions and have successfully prioritized retaining staff. Companies now implement a range of creative initiatives such as a day off on an employee’s birthday, incentives on top of pay and flexible work hours. However, recruitment remains difficult and they are now looking beyond their traditional labour sources.
“They’re now looking at new immigrants, refugees and the semi-retired,” said Warner.
Slavka Schiavio of AML Oceanographic explains the difficulties her company faces recruiting staff.
“It takes an hour from downtown and as there is no link to the industrial site, it’s a half-hour walk to get there. It can take three hours to get here and back home.”
Schiavio says the issue of the industrial site not being serviced by a convenient transport link is exacerbated by a lack of parking.
“There are only 15-20 spots and after 8:15 a.m. there is no place to park. And we’re not allowed to expand our parking lot onto the small green space in front, between the workplace and the road.”
Foreman CNC Machining Limited liken their attempts to attract staff as drawing water from a diminishing pool.
“It’s a small pool to start with, then you’ve got to find qualified people who fit with the company’s culture. A lot of people can’t afford to live here and the pool shrinks even further. Affordable housing and transport limits the pool,” said office manager Natalie Tamosiunas. “We’ve also found that kids coming out of school don’t have the practical skills they did 10 years ago. The mechanical engineers are great but, for the kids, the investment to get them up to speed is too much.”
William Whitelaw, co-owner of BMT Group Services, said that due to incentives and tax breaks elsewhere in Canada, he was having to look for the technicians he needed from abroad. “The immigration process needs to be streamlined and there should be programs like they have up north to help people settle here.”
On Jan. 25 the Chamber of Commerce arranged an industry tour showing delegates a variety of Sidney businesses. Eleven politicians, including two mayors and the leader of the Green Party attended. Half of the companies on the tour spoke about their difficulties to attract staff. The politicians were given access to completed questionnaires about the company owners’ concerns.
“We would consider moving if this doesn’t improve. Our options are limited,” said Schiavio.
Carlson agrees, “Not being able to recruit staff is preventing us from growing our business. Something has to change.”