NS job vacancies soared this spring, leaving restaurants, hotels in a bind

Nova Scotia’s restaurants and hotels need workers as job vacancy rates reach record highs.

According to the latest Statistics Canada data, there were 24,580 job vacancies in Nova Scotia in May, an increase of more than 22 per cent from April, with more than 1,600 in accommodations and food services.

“We probably have never seen anything like this in the history of the restaurant industry in Nova Scotia,” said Gordon Stewart, the executive director of the Restaurants Association of Nova Scotia.

“The labor issue will be longer and tougher on restaurants than the COVID issue will be and it will last at least until 2030.”

Gordon Stewart says it’s going to be a challenge to rebuild the food services labor pool to the 32.000 mark because many industries are competing for workers. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Stewart said it takes around 32,000 people to run the provincial food service industry, but the current figure is closer to 27,000.

How are restaurants coping?

Stewart said about 80 percent of Nova Scotia restaurants had to cut back operations in response to staffing shortages. Many restaurants have shortened hours, reduced menus and closed on days where business is typically slower.

Bill Pratt, the owner of multiple restaurants in the province, said staffing shortages have forced him to close all 21 of his locations at least one day per week.

Bill Pratt owns 21 restaurants across the province, including Upstreet BBQ Brewhouse, Habaneros and Cheese Curds chains. All 21 locations have had to reduce hours of operation due to staffing woes. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I can’t stress enough how critical it is not to be able to open seven days a week,” Pratt said.

“If you’re closed, you can’t generate revenue to pay your rent, your electrical bills, your plumbing bills. It’s detrimental to the success of the business.”

Pratt would like the federal government to fast-track the process of getting foreign workers into Nova Scotia’s kitchens. Pratt hired recruiters over six months ago who have found immigrant workers but they have yet to start cooking in their kitchens.

“We need kitchen workers right now,” Pratt said.

Where did the local workers go?

The number of job vacancies in the food sector began to increase in 2013 but has grown during the pandemic. The need for new kitchen staff puts increased strain on a labor pool that is already struggling.

A cook prepares nachos at Upstreet BBQ Brewhouse. Pratt closed the restaurant on Sundays and Mondays to give his staff a break. (Robert Short/CBC)

Despite raising wages, Pratt has lost kitchen staff to larger out-of-province restaurant groups that can provide more competitive wages. A former employee tried to recruit members of Pratt’s staff because his new employer was offering signing bonuses for new cooks, said Pratt.

“When you start eating each other, what does that do to our industry? It kills us.”

The pandemic shutdowns also allowed many restaurant workers to reconsider their professions. Burnout stemming from low wages, long hours and grueling work conditions has led to an increased number of vacant positions.

The Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia surveyed members in the industry amid these staffing woes. Results showed that people with more than 10 years of kitchen experience made up the majority of workers leaving.

Hotels not being able to provide full services

At the beginning of the pandemic, you have thousands of jobs within the provincial tourism sector were lost.

Lisa Dahr, the director of industry relations for the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia, said tourism demand is back to pre-pandemic levels. However, finding staff to fill positions in the accommodation sector has been a challenge.

Lisa Dahr says it has been challenging to rebuild the accommodations workforce. (Robert Short/CBC News)

Dahr has heard from hotel operators that they have had to reduce food services and restrict the number of rooms they put up for rent.

“They’re going to be affected on whether or not they have servers to prepare and serve that food or if they have enough housekeepers to make the rooms up.”

Dahr said most sectors in the tourism industry are anticipating three to five years to return to full staffing. They are looking to fill the positions through a more diverse labor pool including youth, older workers and new Canadians.

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