GUEST COMMENT: Gayla Thunstrom, UNW 1st Vice President
A growing trend we’ve seen in all sectors in the North and across Canada is the response that pops up whenever employers face scrutiny over shortfalls in program delivery, reduced access to services, and stressful workplace environments: staff shortage.
People may wonder, how can there be so many vacancies when there are so many opportunities in the NWT for stable, well paid work?
The key to a stable and productive workforce is retention. If someone can’t afford the financial – or mental – cost of living and working in the North, they aren’t going to stick around.
Employee retention is a systemic problem throughout the NWT. While the NWT appears to do a good job at attracting skilled workers, keeping them here for the long term has proved challenging.
The first big issue facing any northern worker is the lack of adequate and affordable housing, especially for someone early in their career. Owning your own home or finding decent accommodation on a single income is very expensive – and that’s only if there is housing available in the first place.
Another key issue is affordable, flexible, and available childcare. If a parent does manage to get their kid(s) into a space, they face high costs and little flexibility in terms of when that care is available – which can be a big problem for single parents and shift workers.
The true cost of living in the NWT goes beyond list prices and market rent. When you factor in the costs of utilities, transportation, connectivity, childcare, etc, you start to see that a broader approach is needed to bring down costs and make the NWT an attractive place to live and work.
Competitive wages are a great way to attract workers, but someone applying from outside the NWT who is excited by the prospect of earning an annual income higher than they may receive down south, soon realises that salary doesn’t go as far once they’re living north of 60.
While it is good that housing, childcare, and cost of living appear to have become priority for our current governments, more programs and more money won’t necessarily fix the third key issue many employers do not want to address to retain workers: the working environment itself.
A lot of people move north because they like the lifestyle, the adventure, and the sense of community. But a lack of staffing in the workplace often leaves workers feeling overworked and undervalued, which leads to burn out and decreased morale.
Staffing shortages can occur for a number of reasons, some of which are beyond an employer’s control. What employers can control is how they manage their working environment when shortages occur.
It is a commonly known fact that workers who feel supported and appreciated are more productive, take fewer sick days, and are more likely to stay in their positions or seek advancement in their organization.
For example, flexibility around working hours and schedules is a way an employer can accommodate and retain an employee experiencing childcare challenges. Inclusive workplace practices are another way that employers can ensure that all workers feel comfortable and look forward to coming to work.
Workers also need to feel safe bringing concerns forward, and supported throughout the process. Taking proactive approaches to avoid staff shortages and hold on to workers when they do occur will help end the negative cycle.
Workers also need to be treated equitably. If it appears to workers that some are getting better benefits or pay than others, that needs to be addressed – whether it is perception or fact. And on the ground, managers need to be careful not to play favourites.
If you are in a unionized workplace, and your employer is not addressing these issues, you can affect change with your union through your collective agreement. If you have a collective agreement, make a point of understanding your rights and benefits, as well as those of your coworkers.
What governments can do is fill in the rest. Taking a broad approach to reducing cost of living, increasing availability of childcare, supporting training in sectors that are understaffed, and developing programs that improve quality of life should be where governments focus their efforts and dollars if they want our population and economy to grow.
Gayla Thunstrom, UNW 1st Vice President