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Lots of projects, not enough staff at Coquitlam city hall

In Coquitlam, staff vacancy rates tend to be around the five to six per cent mark; however, as of August, there were 90 jobs available, representing an 8.5 per cent vacancy rate.

Coquitlam city hall may be sitting pretty financially.

But it hasn’t got enough staff to get some of its major projects off the ground.

On Monday (Oct. 24), council-in-committee heard from senior corporate managers about the tight labour market that’s affecting all Lower Mainland municipalities, post–pandemic.

According to the latest newsletter by CivicInfoBC, also released on Monday, there are 678 positions available at municipal halls and civic facilities across the province — in every department.

In Coquitlam, staff vacancy rates tend to be around the five to six per cent mark; however, as of August, there were 90 jobs available, representing an 8.5 per cent vacancy rate.

By comparison, Port Coquitlam’s rate is at 5.8 per cent; Port Moody’s at 4.86 per cent.

Coquitlam's staff shortages mean some big projects scheduled in the 2022 Business Plan, OK'd by council last year, will be put on hold or delayed, city manager Peter Steblin said.

In its second trimester report, the city put two projects "on hold," citing the lack of civic staff: the Coquitlam River Park Master Plan and the Town Centre Park Gateway Planning.

It's the first time that the City of Coquitlam has been forced to put major projects in a true holding pattern, said Graham Stuart, director of corporate planning, at Monday’s meeting.

As well, three projects have a "major delay" stamp, due to the labour shortages, as well as other macro-economic factors like supply chain disruptions and inflationary pressures:

  • Blue Mountain Park Master Plan
  • Fremont Connector planning
  • Heritage management strategy implementation
  • Major Recreation and Cultural Facilities Road Map
  • Glen Park Phase 3 planning

In addition, 11 projects are listed as having a "minor delay" while five items are waiting for action from an outside partner or group that may be also having problems finding staff.

On Monday, during his second trimester report presentation, Coquitlam RCMP Supt. Keith Bramhill also voiced concern about the volume of qualified employees available for hire.

At the regional level, Tarynne Summers, Metro Vancouver’s director of human resources, told the Tri-City News the retirement and resignation rates are higher than usual.

"One of our greatest challenges around staffing and vacancies continues to be attracting and securing top talent to our organization, particularly for our specialized roles. In today's job market, candidates are often receiving multiple offers from a variety of employers."

Stuart said not only are municipal staff currently in high demand, the recruitment process is taking longer. In turn, that impacts the Business Plan and bumps priority items within it.

He said Coquitlam city staff are faring well with A- and B-priority projects — like the Cedar Drive update, Innovation Centre renovations and the Austin Works Yard Renewal — but are challenged with C-priority programs like the Coquitlam Crunch South Extension Planning.

"I can't recall when I had looked at a trimester spreadsheet with so many projects delayed or on hold," said Coun. Craig Hodge, noting the work loads in planning and parks fields.

Nikki Caulfield, general manager of corporate planning, said despite the forecasted economic uncertainty in Canada, Coquitlam continues to boom on the development front.

During the spring (April to June), the city added $417 million in construction value to its inventory, bringing the total year to date to $724 million. As well, Coquitlam took in 361 new building permit applications in the second trimester, reaching a total of 651 to date.

At the end of T2, the city was "in a very strong financial position" with a $5-million surplus, the city report reads.

Caulfield told the committee that city managers are doing what they can to draw talent, noting Coquitlam has won a Top Employer title for the past four years; it has also launched a coop program for students "to build capacity and excitement" around public service.

As well, Coquitlam has started an internal program to train staff to be “mental health champions,: given that one in four Canadians are struggling in the post–pandemic world.

The competitive job market in Coquitlam and the Lower Mainland will be watched closely by the city’s two new politicians, to be sworn in Nov. 7: Matt Djonlic and Robert Mazzarolo.

"It's one of the biggest challenges that we’re going to have over the next term," Djonlic said of the labour force.

"It's not just at city hall: We’re seeing it across the restaurant industry, too…. We're going to have to prioritize things because there’s too much on the city staff's plate that we won’t be able to get things done in time. We need to be selective."

Mazzarolo concurred that many employers are having problems with filling positions.

"My role is to support city staff in overcoming these challenges in a manner that is consistent within my capacity as a city councillor to attract the best possible candidates for the positions available at Coquitlam city hall," he said.

"During the course of the campaign, the overall feedback I received from residents was that they were happy with the level and quality of services provided by our city; however, we should always seek to improve."