Tourism in Quebec City is booming: last year saw the highest number of visitors in its history. Business, then, must be better than ever, right?
“2017 was a disaster, an absolute disaster,” said Kevin Quinn owner of La Nouvelle France in Old Quebec.
Quinn has operated this outdoor terrace, open six months of the year, since the early 1980s. But while customers keep coming, he’s been struggling to find workers, especially kitchen staff.
READ MORE: Quebec sees boom in tourists
“(It’s) the perfect storm. I mean, the number of customers was phenomenal, but you have to have people to serve them,” Quinn said.
Next door, Quinn’s neighbour is facing the same challenge. Recently, Chez Jules was forced to close a couple Fridays ago on one of the busiest days in July — during the Quebec City Summer Festival — because its small weekend staff was overworked.
“We wanted to give them a break, especially … because they are our best workers,” said owner, Marc-Antoine Doré.
“For a restaurant to close during the Festival d’été, it’s surprising, very surprising. We’ve never seen that before,” said Marie Julie Couturier with the Quebec City tourism office.
She added that the situation could get worse once university and CEGEP students go back to school mid- to late-August.
“The season here in Quebec City goes through September and October,” she explained.
Quebec’s economy is growing, but it doesn’t have enough people to fill all the open jobs.
According to a new study, from 1981 to 2010, the number of people between 15 and 44 decreased by over five per cent. However, across Canada, the number of people between 15 to 44 years old increased by over 20 per cent.
About 7,000 Quebecers a year move to other provinces, and fewer are moving to Quebec.
“Workforce shortages is the number one concern of businesses and entrepreneurs right now. We estimate that Quebec will need to find 100,000 workers over the next 10 years to fill our labour force needs,” said Pierre-Yves Boivin with the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Quebec.
Quinn has turned to immigration as a solution. After advertising across Canada for five months with no luck, this summer he’s hired six culinary students from Mexico to work as cooks.
“It’s a big opportunity for us because we not only get to work in this really great environment and get paid for doing what we love, … but he took full responsibility for us,” said 23-year-old Danila Hernandez. “He paid for all the process of getting us here — the plane tickets, everything.”
Hernandez and the other Mexican workers were supposed to start in May, but due to delays in the application process, they arrived only last week, halfway through the season.
“It’s our first time doing it and it’s reasonably complex,” Quinn said, explaining that he waited for approval of the federal application before filling out the provincial application form because he didn’t know that they could be sent simultaneously.
He says he’s not deterred — and he is going to hire more students from Mexico next year.
Other employers, ready to dish out big money to sponsor employees from other countries, are frustrated with the process.
“It’s something like 38 pages,” Doré said of the application process.
“We have many employees from France and it seems to be easier with them, but right now I have a candidate from Africa and it’s a six-month wait, minimum,” he said. “I know there are many people on earth who would like to come and work here and it is so difficult for them to come here.”
New immigration rules come into effect next week and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Quebec say they will make it easier to match immigrants’ skills with employer needs, but they point out, it’s still not a perfect system.
Boivin said Quebec still favours the over-qualification of immigrants. Many job vacancies require only a professional or technical diploma and not necessarily a college degree, he said.
“We think that (with) a system that will value differently various criteria, then we can focus more on labour force needs,” Boivin said.
Laval University economics professor Stephen Gordon is skeptical immigration is the solution.
READ MORE: Montreal to Quebec City: ‘I’ve changed’
“When we think of something like fresh tomatoes in February, we don’t think of there as being a shortage, just that the price is high. And that’s how we should be thinking about (jobs). It’s really a question of, why are wages so low?” he said, adding,”No one is going to move here for low wages.”
He acknowledged, though, that rising wages could mean rising prices for Quebec consumers.