MUCH is being written about the labour shortage that is beginning to affect Canada’s employers, and that will create widespread change from coast to coast. The latest predictions are that the tourism industry alone will be short more than 330,000 workers.

We are seeing the impact of the first wave of retiring baby boomers, as well as the movement to eliminate the retirement age to allow people to work longer. These changes will have dramatic impacts in many ways, on quality of life, workplace climate, collective agreements and employment practices.

Stories from expatriates working in Alberta cause raised eyebrows in Atlantic Canada. Who can imagine a $1,000 signing bonus for McDonald’s employees, combined with a double- digit hourly wage? It is hard to imagine Tim Horton’s outlets closed during the day due to a lack of employees.

These hardships sound unrealistic to those of us in the East who continue to deal with low wages, less than ideal working conditions and pockets of unemployment in the midst of a booming economy. However, if one listens to the experts they will quickly learn that the labour shortage is already here, and it is bound to get worse.

Charles Cirtwell, Acting President of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, notes that by 2020 there will be 80,000 fewer individuals in the workforce in Atlantic Canada. Some provinces will be gravely hit. About half of all adults in Newfoundland and Labrador will not be working.

With an employment rate at a 30-year high, New Brunswick has successfully lured retired workers back into the workforce, helping to stem a growing labour shortage. This is an important achievement given that deaths are expected to outpace births in New Brunswick within the next five years.

It is important for small businesses to understand two things in the face of such labour shortages. The first is how that shortage will affect the firm’s ability to make or sell its product. The second is how such shortages will upset the business balance so much that new opportunities emerge in markets that were previously difficult to enter due to intense competition.

The Calgary boom provides a good case for both of these trends. For example, one window manufacturer in the boom city has been forced to hire almost anyone, trained or not, to install and service windows. The result? Poor service and shoddy workmanship. Just ask the homeowner who discovered that the windows in his new home were all installed upside down.

Imagine buying furniture from a reputable store, and after being promised delivery in a few days, finding out that it will take at least another week. No people, and no product. Complaints fall on deaf ears, because without workers to do the job, there is nothing that can be done to increase the service level.

Clearly, not having qualified employees to do the job seriously impairs a firm’s ability to meet its customers’ needs. It is this inability to meet customers’ needs that leads to new opportunities for enterprising individuals working on a small scale, or even self-employed persons, to come forward to meet those needs.

Can you install windows? If so, there is a job waiting for you in Calgary right now. Do you own a delivery truck? There are legions of furniture retailers with deliveries waiting to be made.

The shortage of qualified tradespeople has also resulted in many opportunities for individuals to complete small repairs for homes and businesses. Many earn a great deal of money doing such tasks, whether or not they have the formal education, or trades papers, qualifying them to do the job.

How can an entrepreneur prepare for such challenges? There are several ways to deal with the issues, providing you have taken the time to be prepared. One Calgary-based Tim Horton’s owner has created a stir by departing from the franchise’s required service procedures to create a self-service cafeteria where patrons choose their own pastries, pour their own coffees and pay at a central cash register. With no drive-thru and only in-store service, the franchise is violating every rule in the Tim Horton’s rulebook, but the innovation allows him to stay open when he would otherwise have to close due to lack of staff.

It is also time to seriously consider how to make your firm’s jobs look more attractive. It is necessary to lure qualified workers just like one lures new customers: by being better than the competitor. Focusing on employees’ needs, with bonuses, enhanced pay, benefits and working conditions, is an entirely new experience for many small business owners.

These measures sound absurd in Atlantic Canada, where for decades there were more than enough in the labour pool to keep the home fires burning. But in this new era of labour shortages, businesses of all sizes must determine how they will reduce the workload required to operate their businesses, while also using creative solutions to find warm bodies to staff critical human resource vacancies. Let the games begin!

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Karen Blotnicky is president of TMC The Marketing Clinic and a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.