Labour shortage has Fort Smith businesses struggling to keep doors open, flights running

·3 min read
Jesse Kurszewski works on his resume at Fort Smith's local employment office, next to a board full of job postings on the wall. He said he goes in every day and is usually the only one there.   (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Jesse Kurszewski works on his resume at Fort Smith's local employment office, next to a board full of job postings on the wall. He said he goes in every day and is usually the only one there. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

Northwestern Air Lease, a Fort Smith, N.W.T. airline, has reduced flight schedules due to a shortage of pilots, engineers and ground crew.

It's one of several businesses in the town that has had to change its hours of operation due to worker shortages and is an example of a labour shortage that's being felt across the country.

"The company's been in existence for just about 60 years now, we've never seen challenges like this finding air crews and retaining them," said Brian Harrold, the owner of the airline. "It's going to be quite a challenge."

Recently, Harrold hired a new pilot and spent thousands of dollars training him. About two hours after finishing a training session, the pilot was offered a job flying with a company out east and was gone.

"You spend all this time and money training them and then the big guys scoop them up right away," Harrold said. "It is becoming quite a challenge to keep people, to keep operating."

A labour shortage that took off in Canada during the pandemic is far from over. According to Statistics Canada, there were 915,500 unfilled positions in the fourth quarter of 2021. That's up by 63 per cent compared to 2020.

Katherine Barton, a spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s Department of Education, Culture, and Employment (ECE), said in an email the tight labour markets are being felt everywhere, as employment opportunities have rebounded since the pandemic. This leaves a smaller pool of workers and higher employment rates.

"While this is good news for N.W.T. residents looking for work, it presents significant challenges for employers looking to hire," Barton said.

'You deserve better'

The Northern Store announced last week on Fort Smith's online community board that in order to serve the community properly, they are reducing store hours as they struggle to find the necessary staff.

"You deserve better from us," wrote Kevin Macdonald, the store manager. "Our current staffing levels are preventing this from happening."

The Bank of Montreal (BMO) in Fort Smith has had to reduce its operating hours several times over the last couple of years. Most recently it started by reducing hours to make up for staff shortages, which led to them partially closing for two days. Alicia Marie, a BMO service representative, said they are actively hiring and encouraged people to apply.

Dana Ferguson, owner of The Pelican Inn, has also been struggling to bring in new staff. Ferguson recently tried to hire housekeeping, front desk, and restaurant staff but barely saw any applications come in. Another issue, she said, is people committing to coming in but then not showing up.

With competitive wages, Ferguson isn't sure why she can't find employees.

Foreign workers

Other jurisdictions have been countering the labour shortage by hiring foreign workers.

The federal government announced changes in the spring that would allow sectors experiencing shortages — including tourism, food production and health care — to hire more employees from abroad, and in some cases those employees can stay longer.

But businesses in regions with unemployment of six per cent or higher aren't eligible for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in the N.W.T.

According to N.W.T.'s Community Statistics released in 2019, Fort Smith has an unemployment rate of 10.2 per cent.

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