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Council ordered planning and building staff back to the office to expedite housing approvals — but has it backfired?

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City Hall has become desperate to fill vacant jobs in a pair of departments critical to addressing London’s persistent housing crisis.

“Bringing on a recruiter is a last ditch effort to try and get some folks— so we found a recruiter that specializes in building and planning,” Scott Mathers, Deputy City Manager of Planning and Economic Development, informed a council committee.

Already facing serious staffing shortages in the Planning and Development Department and the Building Services Department, those active recruitment efforts have fallen short.

“They've reached out to 60 planners, and have received very few responses,” admitted John Paradis, Deputy City Manager of Enterprise Supports. “Conversations they had with potential candidates were that compensation is too low and [there’s] no hybrid work models.”

The job vacancy rate in the Planning and Development Department has reached eight per cent.

It’s now 16 per cent in the Building Services Department.

At the urging of local developers and homebuilders, in July council ordered a change to the hybrid work model that’s in place for both of those departments.

By the end of March 2024, planners, building officials, and related staff must shift from the current 50 per cent hybrid work schedule (5 days home/ 5 days office) to a 20 per cent hybrid model (1 day home/ 4 days office).

“Is it possible that we need to be taking a different approach from what we set out in July?” asked Coun. Sam Trosow who warned colleagues about possible retention and recruitment impacts before the decision in July.

However, Coun. Peter Cuddy pointed out that recruiting qualified professionals is a struggle for municipalities across Ontario.

“When you benchmark Waterloo or York, they have the same problems,” Cuddy said. “It’s not just because of the hybrid model, it’s because they don't have enough candidates.”

Mathers said he’s actively consulting with Western University and Fanshawe College to ensure graduates will be qualified to fill vacancies upon graduation.

Meanwhile, the shift to more office hours is also putting a squeeze on space inside city hall.

Desks and workstations can no longer be shared between staff that work different hybrid schedules.

Since office days will now overlap, Civic Administration must spend $1.1 million to create more workstations inside city hall and purchase additional desks and computers.

It's something the union representing inside workers believes is unnecessary because work-from-home wasn't reducing productivity.

“These individuals have been meeting or exceeding all that's asked of them even with a shortage of staff,” said Steve Holland, President of CUPE Local 101.

Holland warned that staff in the impacted departments may be tempted to leave London for neighbouring municipalities that offer higher wages and work-from-home flexibility.

He believes it could jeopardize council's housing target of 47,000 new units by 2031.

“You can't meet those targets if you don't have the proper staffing, and if you don't have the proper staffing the work suffers,” Holland added.

The committee did not consider changing the hybrid model endorsed back in the summer.

Instead, they recommended that the Planning and Development Department and the Building Services Department be prioritized for “workplace modernization” if council approves an upcoming business case in the 2024-2027 municipal budget and the upcoming Master Accommodation Plan.

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