Everywhere you look in Dunbar, you see the signs.
On the window of the busy Bean Town coffee shop at 26th and Dunbar in Vancouver, a faded “help wanted” sign flaps each time someone opens the door.
On the bus shelter at 41st, the Kokopelli Café has pasted its own plea for employees. “No experience necessary. Will train,” reads the tattered sign.
On the marquee of the Dunbar Cinema the movie titles change each week, but month after month the message at the bottom stays the same: “Now Hiring.”
“In the past few years in particular it’s been harder to find employees,” says Anna Kelly, assistant manager of the Dunbar. “It’s mostly just kids. Sometimes you get the odd person in their twenties or thirties,” she says. “Above 16 is hard to find.”
There simply aren’t enough people willing to roll sushi, pour coffee or serve popcorn to the affluent families and empty nesters who inhabit this Westside community.
Jeff Mo, owner of the Bean Town cafe, knows the challenge all too well. Mo commutes across town each morning, seven days a week, to open up shop by six am. He’s posted ads online and placed ads in the paper, but in six months of searching he’s found no one.
“Few people apply, mostly high school students,” says Mo. “I’m looking for full-time employees but it’s pretty hard right now on Dunbar Street.” Until he finds someone to trust his shop with, Mo has no choice but to keep doing double duty. Mo says he’s worked seven days a week for more than two years now. Mo fears that the workers he’s looking for just don’t live in Dunbar.
Housing out of reach
Young people and recent immigrants are the mainstay of the low-wage service industry, according to a 2006 Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) report on the labour shortage.
The 2006 census counted a third fewer 25 to 29 year olds in the Dunbar area as there are in Metro Vancouver as a whole. While 7.2% of Vancouver residents immigrated to Canada in the five years prior to the Census, only 2.6% of Dunbar residents are recent immigrants.
To make matters worse, housing in Dunbar is simply out of reach for those making service industry wages. The average house is worth $1,044,000. While 34.9% of Vancouverites rent their home, only 13.7% of residents in Dunbar do.
It makes little sense for employees to work at The Dunbar if they live outside of the neighbourhood, says Kelly. “If they’re getting off work at twelve-thirty or one at night, they’re not going to want to catch the bus to somewhere way out.” Kelly is lucky enough to have rented a room in nearby Point Grey.
Vancouver’s EcoDensity Plan aims to increase the amount of rental housing in low-density neighbourhoods like Dunbar by encouraging property owners to build small “laneway houses” where their garages currently sit. But that type of change is both slow and expensive.
In the meantime, says Kelly, “more places are offering starting wages higher than minimum wage.” Jeff Mo is one of those willing to pay more than the minimum, offering $8.50 an hour after training and incremental raises every few months after that. Despite paying more than the mandated $8 per hour, businesses like Mo’s are still struggling to hire.
According to the CRFA, substantial increases in wages in Alberta’s food services industry have not solved the labour shortage there. Chances are that paying more money will not work in Dunbar either.
For now, Bean Town’s “Now Hiring” sign will continue to flap in the wind. And Jeff Mo and Anna Kelly are not alone.
The Conference Board of Canada predicts that changing demographics will leave British Columbia short of 160,000 employees by 2015, according to a report released in June. As the baby boomers of Dunbar start to retire, there will be even fewer workers to shell out their popcorn or make their lattes.