Just a note to readers – I have ‘lumped together’ the finance, hospitality and service/retail employers listed in the CRD document I’ve been using as a reference for this series of posts to form Victoria’s 5th biggest employer. This is not strictly accurate since the BC Economy Guide would put these three sectors as making up about 37.5% of the workforce province-wide. So going by this number employees in these three sectors probably are Victoria’s second or third numerically largest employer.
As you might guess, in a city like Victoria that is so dependent on tourism for much of its economic activity, there are a lot of service/retail and hospitality jobs. In addition, the city’s position as the provincial capital means it is a natural to have a concentration of financial institutions although it does not, unlike Vancouver, have its own stock exchange. This however is not unusual – Ottawa, the nation’s capital doesn’t have a stock exchange while Toronto, long been considered Canada’s financial nerve centre, does.
The CRD list of biggest employers in 2011 lists Coast Capital Savings as Victoria’s largest single financial employer with just over 500 employees. This organization has an interesting history – it is the product of mergers between several credit unions in 2000 (Pacific Coast Savings and Richmond Savings) and 2002 (Coast Capital Savings merged with Surrey Metro Savings). The ‘original’ organization – Pacific Coast Savings – was formed in 1940. Coast Capital Savings has over 2,000 employees with about a quarter of them in Victoria at 11 branches (there are 56 in total spread over Vancouver Island and the lower mainland).
The biggest retail employer is Thrifty Foods (2,300 employees) which used to be known as the Island’s private, independent ‘homegrown grocery store’ but was taken over by Sobeys in 2007 . The company has eleven stores in Victoria (if you count the two located outside the city proper in Sidney and Colwood) two of which are open 24 hours a day. Many of these stores are the ‘anchoring’ merchants in shopping plazas.
Although Sobeys agreed not to ‘mess with’ Thriftys profile and reputation in the community anecdotally many people complain that prices have gone up, treatment of employees has deteriorated and community support – of which Thriftys did a huge amount – has decreased. I personally don’t see that much of a change but I rarely shop there – it is not that convenient to where I live and as a non-driver I am much more likely to frequent the grocery store in my neighbourhood – and when I do go it is with specific, on-sale items on my list so I don’t really observe prices for other things. I have always found Thriftys more expensive than the other local stores with the exception of Safeway which I find uniformly overpriced and brimming with imported (meaning American) produce when I know that locally – or at least provincially – sourced items are available.
The largest hospitality employer is the venerable Fairmont Empress Hotel with just over 500 employees (although no figures for the split between full and part-timers is given). It is also unknown how much this figure fluctuates on a seasonal basis. ‘The Empress’ as it is commonly known is also probably one of Victoria’s oldest employers having opened over 100 years ago in 1908. Despite her age ‘The Empress’ is definitely not a stodgy, stuff establishment – it has a modern and luxurious spa, leads the way with an innovative ‘green’ program, seems to be constantly renovating and upgrading and has some really cool features that distinguish it from other hotels – for example an artist in residence program.
These approximately 3,300 people that work for ‘The Empress’, Thrifty Foods and Coast Capital Savings represent just a small portion of the thousands of Victorians that work in the service/retail, hospitality and finance sector. For example, it is commonly bandied about that there are more restaurants per capita in Victoria than anywhere else in North America with the exception of San Francisco ). I don’t know if this is true or not but Yelp lists 428 reviewed on their site. Even a (very) small dining establishment – like Willows Galley – probably has at least five staff whereas big outfits – like Earls or The Keg – could have anywhere between 20 and 50.
Then there are the stores selling everything from kitschy tourist souvenirs to whale watching tours to thousand-dollar pieces of art. Fort Street is lined with antique stores and elsewhere in the city there are some very exclusive (and expensive) home decor and furnishings shops selling new, reproduction and genuinely old pieces. Finally there are several branches of each of Canada’s major banking chains (Scotiabank, TD Canda Trust, CIBC, Royal Bank and Bank of Montreal) as well as a smattering of credit unions (Island Savings, VanCity).
Of course, you may be tempted to say that the majority of these thousands of jobs are entry-level and pay little more than the minimum wage and additionally may be seasonal in nature becoming hard to find (or keep!) once the golden summer months of tourism are over. Yes, this is true but on the plus side these jobs can be excellent training ground for those wanting to develops skills as well as have entries on their resumes and a low base wage can be supplemented by tips for those with hustle and enthusiasm.
Also, these ‘McJobs’ in service/retail, finance and hospitality may, in my opinion, offer some of the only remaining opportunities to develop expertise and explore different potential careers on somebody elses dime. Those with talent and drive may be able to convince employers, even small, family-run outfits, to allow them to learn on the job. Another advantage of employment in this sector – specifically hospitality – is the chance to travel the world while working with the same company. For example, ‘The Empress’ is one of 56 Fairmont hotels worldwide – others are located in Asia, Europe and Africa.
What is the outlook for this sector in the future? Jobs in the retail/service sector are “expected to grow only slightly faster than the all-industry average” and the BC Economy guide also says that unemployment in this sector is traditionally fairly low (although wages are correspondingly lower than those in other sectors). The outlook for the accommodation and food services industry (what I call hospitality) is fairly flat with little change expected in the percentage of British Columbians employed in this sector over the next five years but with continued ‘lower-than-average’ wages and about the same unemployment level as other sectors. Finally, the finance sector is not expected to see as robust growth as other sectors although in the short term it may be a good choice as wages are slightly better than in the other two sectors and unemployment is also quite a bit lower than elsewhere.
So, don’t discount the service/retail, finance and hospitality sectors. Yes, entry-level, low-skilled jobs predominate but there is a thin layer of more highly skilled positions that offer good pay and other perks and, most importantly, may be accessible to keen employees with a willingness to learn and passion for the organization. Whether you want to be a pastry chef but are presently a dishwasher, go from being a teller to a financial planner or move from behind the cash register to being a buyer for a department in a big store like The Bay you may be able to do so given some luck and persistence. This is not so much the case in many of the other sectors – like healthcare or education – where it is all about your qualifications getting you your job and there not being that much scope for advancement within a given position.
Next week I’ll focus in on a specific organization within this sector. Check out the links below for jobs at some of the companies I’ve mentioned.