Alberta’s hospitality sector is still grappling with a years-long labour shortage, though new labour force data shows there’s hope on the horizon. 

According to Statistics Canada numbers analyzed by Alberta Central, employment in the province’s food service and accommodation sector grew by 10,600 jobs last month —  the largest increase across all industries.

For Karen Kho, owner-operator of Empire Provisions and Lil’ Empire Burger in Calgary, it’s a sign workers are feeling more confident about the industry’s future. In the thick of the pandemic, she said there was a “mass exodus” of restaurant workers who were fed up with frequent closures and reopenings. 

Now that things are more stable, “we are seeing less hesitation to people applying for positions,” said Kho, who also sits on the board of the Alberta Hospitality Association. 

A man in a black tee-shirt stands with his arm around the waist of a woman in a black dress.
Karen Kho (right) is pictured along with her partner, David Sturies. (Submitted by Karen Kho)

Still, the problem is far from solved. Employment in food service and accommodation remains 10 per cent below pre-COVID levels, according to Alberta Central, a rate that’s underperforming the rest of the country. 

“There’s a high volume of restaurants across the province that are still short-staffed,” said Ernie Tsu, the Alberta Hospitality Association’s president, who said businesses in Northern Alberta and the Bow Valley are particularly struggling. 

Efforts to improve working conditions, culture

One side effect is that, in an effort to recruit staff and to keep them around, Kho said more operators are trying to improve their working conditions.

Antonio Migliarese, for example, introduced health benefits for his staff last year in an effort to retain staff. He says the initiative has helped “a lot” with stability, and he’s noticed the perk becoming more common in industry job postings. 

“It’s something I think is almost a necessity now to keep employees long-term because you’re taking care of their health,” said Migliarese, who owns D.O.P. and Pizzaface in Calgary.

Workplace culture is also becoming more of a priority these days, Kho said. 

While TV shows like The Bear may romanticize a high-pressure image of restaurant work, she said a growing number of businesses are trying to get away from that and are making efforts to prioritize mental health and work-life balance. 

 “I think that as more operators jump on board with that, they’ll be able to recruit better people,” said Kho. 

“We’re just at a point where as hospitality owners, we really do need to be listening to what the market is demanding and the market is just demanding to be treated fairly and with respect.”


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