B.C. facing shortage of skilled workers

Companies in green economy worse off — 22 per cent of workers retiring by 2016
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

Over the past year, Vancouver-based Tantalus has hired 64 people, nearly doubling its workforce. And yet the company, which provides Smart Grid technology to utility companies to optimize energy use and conservation, still has at least six senior positions it can’t fill.

“We’re now using four different headhunters. We’re not seeing the calibre of talent that we need,” said Eric Murray, CEO at Tantalus. “We’re looking for people with system capabilities and lots of experience, and they are few and far between.”

Murray hasn’t had trouble finding entry-level people but has had difficulty finding project leaders and senior developers.

“If you don’t have those people, you don’t stay alive and well,” he said.

To cope with the problem of finding people with the right skills and experiences in British Columbia, and Canada as a whole, Tantalus has gone international for talent. And if this trend continues for all green employers, Canada is going to lose out, said Murray.

“This industry is just starting to take off and if we don’t get our act together in Canada, the Chinese, the Americans, the Europeans, they’re going to commercialize more rapidly and they’re going to own this market,” he said. “The concern there is, ultimately, jobs will go somewhere else.”

In 2008, B.C.’s green sectors — made up of companies that provide products and services to help organizations and individuals become more efficient in their resource and energy use — contributed $15.3 billion, or 10.2 per cent, to the province’s gross domestic product and were responsible for 7.2 per cent of total provincial employment (166,000 full-time jobs), according to a report from the GLOBE Foundation of Canada.

The role of green industries will continue to grow and is expected to contribute between $20.1 billion and $27.4 billion to the province’s economy in 2020, or 10.8 to 14.1 per cent of total provincial GDP, stated British Columbia’s Green Economy: Securing the Work Force of Tomorrow.

And by 2020, there will be 147,000 to 202,000 skilled green jobs. With 22 per cent of this workforce expected to retire in the next six years and a smaller growth in the supply of workers, there will be a shortage of at least 60,000 skilled green workers, stated the report.

One-third of green firms report recruiting headaches

Already about one-third of the 104 green companies surveyed said they are having trouble filling positions, especially experienced engineers, technicians/technologists, business development professionals and environmental consultants.

“Labour supply is not growing nearly as quickly as it needs to fill the hole,” said Paul Shorthouse, director of special projects at GLOBE Foundation, which promotes the business case for sustainable development.

And respondents predicted the shortages will only worsen over the next 20 years, said Shorthouse.

“They felt that the labour shortage potential down the road could be a major business hurdle,” he said.

Possible solutions include having employers work more closely with post-secondary institutions to ensure the curriculum meets employers’ needs, said Shorthouse. This would also give employers access to a supply of co-op students and interns.

The provincial and federal governments should also help by providing grants for in-house training, ensuring students are being taught the necessary skills for jobs in the green economy and fast-tracking skilled immigrants, said Shorthouse.

The entire B.C. economy, not just the green sector, is facing a shortage of skilled workers. The province is projected to see a 25-per-cent increase in provincial GDP by 2017, boosting employment by an average of 1.8 per cent per year and creating 450,000 new jobs by 2019, according to the government report Skills for Growth: British Columbia’s Labour Market Strategy to 2020.

Another 676,000 workers will retire, leading to about 1.1 million jobs available in 2019, according to the government. With only about 650,000 graduates expected from the province’s education system over the next decade, the growth in job openings will outpace the number of available workers.

To ensure the province has enough skilled workers to fill the projected 1.1 million jobs, the government’s new labour market strategy aims to increase the skill level of British Columbians by tailoring the curriculum to labour market needs and encouraging more students to attend post-secondary institutions; attracting and retaining top talent by fast-tracking foreign workers as needed and providing integration services to immigrants; and boosting productivity.

The proper training is critical to ensure workers have the skills needed for jobs, which is why employers should partner closely with local education and training institutions, said Regional Economic and Skills Development Minister Ida Chong.

Providing on-the-job training is also a good way to attract workers in a tight labour market, she said.

“Since training often takes two years or more, employers need to act now to ensure we have skilled workers for tomorrow,” said Chong.

Offsetters, a Vancouver-based firm that helps individuals and companies reduce their carbon footprint, has always had strong ties with the University of British Columbia, said Colleen Hamilton, a project manager at the firm.

This relationship has ensured the company has a steady supply of skilled applicants, she said.

“We have never really felt that there were shortages,” said Hamilton. “Vancouver doesn’t have that many carbon consultancies, so we tend to get very qualified applicants.”

Green recruiting advantage

Green employers might have an edge when it comes to recruiting employees as the labour market tightens in B.C. because employees prefer to work for an organization with “green” policies, said David Litherland, managing partner at executive search firm Summit Search Group in Vancouver.

But green policies aren’t exclusive to organizations in the green economy. Any company can make environmental sustainability part of its values, said Litherland. This could be something as simple as an insurance company having a policy to reduce the use of printer toner to something as complex as an IT firm helping members of the community recycle used computer equipment.

“When employers are out looking for talent, it’s a two-way street. While companies are looking for the best talent in the marketplace, the talent in the marketplace is also looking for the best employer,” he said.

A candidate often chooses between employers that offer similar compensation and benefits, he said, so having green policies is “a point of difference.”

However, employers can’t lose sight of the basics. Compensation, benefits and flexible work options are among the top drivers for candidates when choosing a job, with compensation usually winning out, he said. But a company’s values and ethics, which include corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, follow closely.

One of Litherland’s clients, an appliance manufacturer, wasn’t able to tell candidates what initiatives it had taken to improve the environmental efficiency of its products and, as a result, several top candidates pulled out of the recruitment process, he said.

The company had probably made improvements but they weren’t communicated to HR, so it wasn’t able to share them with candidates, which hurt the company’s chances of hiring top talent, said Litherland

If an employer has green initiatives, it needs to communicate them to all employees and make them part of recruitment marketing.

“There are very few that are doing it and I think it’s a great opportunity for other organizations to stand above others,” he said.

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