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City struggles to fill jobs in key departments in quest to build more homes

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Just about every industry is struggling right now with talent gaps, from the skilled-trades to medical fields, and everything in between.

And amid a housing crisis, municipalities are not immune to that problem, with staff shortages in some key departments at the City of Windsor and other neighbouring towns.

The City of Windsor is struggling to fill positions in many departments, but most acutely, in development services, which houses both the building and planning departments.

Despite this, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said the city is doing its part to reduce red tape at city hall.

“We have issued record building permits in the City of Windsor,” Dilkens said Monday, in reference to the 1,154 permits for housing units in 2023.

“We have been swamped. There is no doubt about it,” Dilkens said.

Recent missed opportunities for tens of millions of dollars of funding through the federal government’s Housing Accelerator Fund over criteria issues, as well as the province’s Building Faster Fund due to a low volume of housing starts were a tough pill to swallow.

But the struggle for talent is a looming threat that has city officials sounding the alarm.

“You try and hire a planner today in the province of Ontario, you have recruiting firms who won't even take your $40,000 or $50,000 to do the recruitment because there's such a shortage they know they can't be successful,” said Dilkens. “At the end of the day, you need the human resources to be able to move the projects through. And there is a provincial shortage.”

Before a building can go up, someone from the city’s building department must issue a permit, an arduous process which very specific technical skills and years of training and education.

City officials say it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with the volume of permits due to a shrinking labour pool of planners and building inspectors, and recruitment efforts which often turn up empty.

“I would argue there's a national shortage of some of the most skilled people who are reviewing these applications,” said Dilkens.

According to the city’s Chief Building Official John Revell, there are several unfilled building inspector positions at city hall, which are funded in the budget, but remain empty.

“It's the greatest challenge we have,” said Revell. “We do try to recruit, we put out job postings. We sometimes get a few candidates but it’s very difficult to recruit.”

Dilkens said that part of the problem is the talent pool in the region is so limited; workers often hop from municipality to municipality.

“We call it ‘Essex County bingo’ where people are moving to different municipalities and throughout Essex County trying to get the best opportunity,” said Dilkens, noting it’s a problem that affects not only Windsor, but other municipalities as well.

Faced with a housing crisis and the province’s goal of building 13,000 homes by 2031, Revell said what’s even more troublesome is a labour concern on the immediate horizon regarding current employees.

“We're very worried about people retiring in the near future and filling those positions. People with a lot of experience are very hard to come by,” he said.

The result of that, according got Revell, could be longer inspection windows — 48 to 72 hours, instead of the customary 24-hour period — which could slow down builders and ultimately delay progress towards reaching those building goals.

“We're able to cover the situations right now today, but over the coming months, it's going to become more and more challenging, and we're very concerned for this summer,” he said.

The city has implemented processes to make permitting more efficient by digitizing records and applications, which allows the department to do more work with fewer resources.

The city is also promoting and training employees from within the corporation to help clear the permit pipeline, to hopefully get more homes built.

“We're doing a good job and we continue to tweak it to say that we're doing a great job,” said Dilkens. “We've actually become far more efficient, and I think next year we're going to see a different result.”

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