A hot economy is firing up the burners in the province's restaurant sector.
Flush with more money in their pockets, people in this province are eating out more, says the Alberta Restaurant & Foodservices Association (ARFA).
However, there is one problem on the plate - the recipe for culinary success is short on one key ingredient: employees.
"Very definitely, there's a shortage in the hospitality sector," says ARFA president and CEO Lindy Rollingson. "It's pretty well everything, right from busboys and dishwashers to cooks, waiters and servers."
|Jack Dagley, Business Edge|
|David Lofthaug of CIS, centre, helped Sujith Maraweera, left, join the staff at Richard Torbeih's JB's Restaurant.|
As more restaurants open and the labour crunch continues - 50 per cent of the industry's employees are between the ages of 15 and 24 and the Baby Boom generation produced fewer offspring - ARFA is looking more seriously at the disabled community and seniors to fill its openings.
But staffing isn't the only item on the association's menu. ARFA is working with immigration authorities "to try to ease the (entry) requirements for people who are trained in the hospitality industry."
Meanwhile, David Lofthaug, COO of Edmonton-based Canadian Immigration Specialists Ltd., has been trying to help restauranteurs fill their employment needs with foreigners skilled in the trade. He's already placed two people and is working on three other dossiers in the hospitality field.
"They can't find employees that are qualified," says Lofthaug. "There's just nobody out there. I walked into one restaurant (recently) and they took all the cooks that I had on file in my inventory."
Lofthaug is now concentrating his efforts on bringing in trained restaurant staff from Sri Lanka.
Devastated by the massive tsunami last December that ravaged more than 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's coastline and left 30,000 dead, Lofthaug says Sri Lanka is the first place his company checked out, "because they used to have a very successful tourism industry and they have very qualified staff over there."
"The people there - we were inundated. They said 'please help us find employment, we need to support our families, we lost our jobs,' " says Lofthaug, referring to hospitality staff there ranging from waiters all the way up to managers.
While Sri Lankan officials claim tourism has since rebounded and that only 84 of 242 hotels suffered some degree of damage, and that $5.3 million US is being spent as part of a tourism marketing recovery program, Lofthaug says that's not the picture he saw on a recent trip.
"There isn't really a recovery yet, I've actually been there," he says. "I've talked to some hotel owners in the Colombo area where they were not physically affected (by the tsunami), but they still have very high vacancy rates."
Recent restaurant hire Sujith Maraweera, now working as a cook at JB's Restaurant in Edmonton, left his wife and daughter behind to come to Canada to get a job with Lofthaug's help.
"I would have stayed in Sri Lanka if I could have found work there," says Maraweera. "After the tsunami, I couldn't find a job there."
Thrilled to have the chance to come and work in Canada - and at wages that are about 10 times higher than what he got paid for similar work in Sri Lanka - he doesn't enjoy leaving his immediate family behind.
But what Maraweera does like is getting paid for the work he does at a rate that is more representative of the skills, says Lofthaug. "There are benefits to his family too. Financially, he can provide more for them working here."
"I'm happy, I'm glad. I knew this was going to change my life. I couldn't believe I was going to Canada, starting a new life," says Maraweera. "I enjoy my job more in Canada than I did in Sri Lanka."
Maraweera is here on a work permit and is considering bringing his family to Canada if he is able to obtain permanent residence status.
He also has a suggestion for Canadian employers - it could be more beneficial to hire out-of-work Sri Lankans and bring them here for a year where they can get more experience. "It would be another way of helping after the tsunami," says Maraweera.
Lofthaug, meanwhile, is also looking at other sectors where employers might be facing skilled-staff shortages.
"But we're not like a headhunter. There is no cost to the employer," says Lofthaug, who instead charges the employee a fee, which is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, in Valleyview, about three and a half hours north of Edmonton, Kam Ichtay is quite happy after bringing his nephew from Lebanon to work as a cook and restaurant manager - with Lofthaug's assistance.
"I put an ad in the paper for at least two months, and no replies - the local Valleyview papers, the Edmonton papers, and nobody responded. As soon as you say you're out of town they don't care," says Ichtay. "My brother has two restaurants in Valleyview and he's also having trouble finding staff. You wouldn't believe the problems he's going through."
The situation is so bad, Ichtay says, at times customers have helped to clean off the tables at his Horizon Steak House.
"We pay high wages, above the minimum wage. I have to, to keep my staff. If my customers are not happy I have no business. It's not an easy job, I have a family living from it, I look after my mom, my dad," adds Ichtay.
"I'm going to have David try and get more staff. I'm asking about another cook and my brother is also trying to get a cook, too."
ARFA's Rollingson says the hospitality sector has been facing a tight labour situation for at least two years. "There are very few restaurants or hotels that are fully staffed at this time," she adds.
(Laura Severs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)