Staffing woes growing problem for St. Mary’s businesses

·3 min read

SHERBROOKE – Brenda Kaiser remembers when the urgent question in St. Mary’s was: How many Covid-weary come-from-aways can the little municipality accommodate? Now, she wonders: Where’d they all go?

“I thought with everyone moving in from Ontario, we’d get some help,” says the proprietor of the Sherbrooke Village Inn, who notes that for the first time that she can remember staffing has been a headache this year for her and her business partner and husband Tom. “We’ve not had this problem before.”

She's not the only business operator in the area suddenly enduring a precipitous drop in the local labour pool. Shawna Huntley, manager of Sherbrooke Village Clover Farm grocery, also reports slim pickings. “There’s just not enough people, and it seems like we’re all stealing from each other.” Again, she says, “We’ve never had this issue before.”

Call it a hangover from Covid, or a demographic shift, but go anywhere along the Eastern Shore these days and you’re likely to hear a similar story. People aren’t lining up for certain kinds of jobs – restaurants, inns, convenience stores – the way they used to. And not just here.

“The unemployment-to-job-vacancy ratio in Canada is at a historical low, amid a record tight labour market,” Statistics Canadas’s most recent labour market trends report states. “Recruiting skilled employees was expected to be an obstacle over the next three months for nearly 37 per cent of all businesses, led by those in construction (49.5 per cent), manufacturing (47.4 per cent), and accommodation and food services (46.3 per cent).”

It’s even worse overseas.

“Between March and May [2022], the number of vacancies in Britain reached a record 1.3 million,” The Economist reported in July. “The tight labour market is affecting many industries. Figures from Indeed, a recruitment platform, reveal a 72 per cent increase in postings within the food-preparation and service sector since February 2020 and a doubling in warehouse positions. In the 12 months to May 2022 Linkedin, a networking platform, saw a 72 per cent drop in the average number of applications per job posting.”

For small businesses that don’t have a plush cushion of financial laurels – which account for most enterprises in rural communities – a full complement of trained staff can mean the difference between a good year and devastating one.

Huntley says that while she’s not advertising for employees at the moment, "We probably will be. We currently have 13 staff, but we are losing one. We need more people, probably another [two or three]. But, you know, we have some prospects. I think we’ll be able to add a few more people to the team.”

Meanwhile, Kaiser has been using social media to advertise positions she could, once upon a time, count on filling without much trouble. “I’ve been looking for waitresses, and cooks, and housekeepers,” she says. “I can see this is going to be a problem next year, too. I know one of my housekeepers plans on going back to Ontario. One of my waitresses is getting up there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t want to come back only because, you know, it’s time for her to enjoy life.”

She says that’s not such a bad idea.

“We always said we’d try and sell after five years, knowing it might take a couple of years, and we’ve been at it seven,” she says. “COVID hit. It’s time for us to take a break. We’re not getting any younger.”

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal