The future for production workers remains unclear as the summer continues on

As restrictions start to loosen in Ontario, production companies are looking forward to an increase in work. However, there still might be logistical issues. Such as finding people to work the jobs.

Michael Wood is the CMO and part-owner of Ottawa Special Events, an event production, and audio and video company. Pre-pandemic business was good for Wood and the company, but things took turn drastically.

They produced events like Capital Pride and the launch of the LRT in 2019. During the summer they would average about 55 full-time staff. But, things quickly changed when the pandemic hit and 98 percent of the company’s revenue disappeared.

“In March of 2020 we laid off our entire staff of 23 people, and we haven’t been in a position to bring anyone back part-time, let alone full time,” said Wood. “The scenario is, I have not drawn a paycheque from my own business since March 2020.”

At that time, there was uncertainty about how long the business could last. Wood thought it may have had about 2 months left. But, because of government subsidies for businesses and people, Ottawa Special Events has survived for 17 months.

However, they haven’t halted work entirely. Ottawa is known as a film destination for Hallmark movies, especially Christmas ones. Over the past year, Wood has been able to work on the sets of some of those movies.

“Obviously we don’t have the festivals, fairs, and huge trade shows that we normally have,” he said. “But we are dealing with these little events and they do add up and keep everyone in business.”

A shortage in available workers has also caused business owners issues. Some workers are deciding not to come back and opting for more stable jobs instead. Although, for some production companies like Ottawa Special Events, there are ways around staff shortages and social distancing restrictions.

Ably Production is one of those companies. They do audio and video production in the National Capital Region. Steve Johnston is a partner and senior producer.

Like Wood, Johnston lost big event productions during the pandemic. However, he also relied on smaller events and the switch to digital to tide him over. As events turned virtual, organizers still needed video and audio production, so Johnston leaned into that side of the industry.

“The pandemic took away, but it also provided other opportunities as an entrepreneur, you have to be ready to adjust,” said Johnston. He was lucky enough to have the proper tools at his disposal to pivot as the industry changed. However, he acknowledges that not everyone has had that luxury.

“It’s kind of a war of attrition for a lot of us,” explained Johnston. “But for those people that are just stage workers, or audio guys that are not in charge of their own fate, I feel for them. They have to wait it out, or go get regular jobs.” Many are doing the latter.

Johnston believes that we could see a hybrid of in-person and virtual events in the future. Which, along with capacity restrictions in place, could stiffen the number of job availabilities for production workers in the industry.

A reason there could continue to be digital events, he says, is because they are accessible and production is simple when restrictions are in place and few workers are available. “It’s easier to mount a virtual event and make it look pretty pro, and only involve four or five other people.” While large scale festivals need more help with the setup, production, and tear down.

As for Wood, he is cautiously hopeful for the future. “Am I optimistic? Sure. I’m a positive person, I hope that we can all get back to normal sooner than later. However, without knowing the facts and how this is going to roll out. It’s tough to be optimistic some days.”

Moving forward, he does believe that there is a need for advocacy on a national scale. Wood says he would like to see a national organization, with social media and traditional media presence, lobbying the federal government. Similar to what the Ottawa Festival network does, except for all of Canada.

“If those things had happened nationally we might have had a different outcome,” said Wood. “But hind-sight is 20/20. Nobody can predict the future. I just hope we all survive.”