Tackling talent shortages

There’s been plenty of talk lately about labour shortages and a lack of skilled talent. So, how are employers coping? We talked to five CEOs from across the country to find out.

Tackling talent shortages
CEOs, from left; Mary Ann Yule, Gaëtan Thomas, John Ferguson, Len Murray and Karen Oldfield.

Mary Ann Yule: president of HP Canada

The tech company is based in Mississauga, Ont., and has about 470 employees

Canada’s labour shortage is real and there is no quick fix, according to Mary Ann Yule, president of HP Canada, citing Statistics Canada numbers showing the national unemployment rate for July fell to a four-decade low of 5.8 per cent, while earlier this year, there was an increase of 38,000 vacant jobs, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“Canada’s quickly shifting demographics and rapid pace of technological innovation are altering the skills needed to be successful in today’s economic landscape, leading to a skills gap in the workforce,” she says.

The recent strength of the economy is one reason for the trend, says Yule, but the larger issue at play is the low supply of young workers, which is barely keeping up with the growing number of retirees.

And the labour shortage has impacted each industry differently.

“At a top level, the shortage represents the widespread skills gap, talent deficit and brain drain currently taking place across the Canadian labour market. In the technology industry, new skills are required to succeed. As technology continues to evolve at lightning speed, redefining the way we live and work, the workforce has struggled to keep up, creating a widespread battle for talent.”

For example, Canada is experiencing a deficit of cybertalent, in large part due to women not historically being encouraged to seek careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, she says.

“Empowering the next generation of workers begins with better educating today’s youth and affording them opportunities to learn skills that will prepare them for the future — the fourth industrial revolution.”

Students who are able to leverage the advancements in automation, 3D printing, digitization and AI, and who take a genuine interest in it, are well-poised for success “in returning balance to the current labour shortage in the long-term,” says Yule.

As a result, HP Canada has established a foundation for growth and partnership within the cybersecurity and technology industry.

“We have forged alliances with educational institutions, governments and businesses to both train new talent and match student demand as STEM increases in popularity,” she says.

Some of Canada’s top educational institutions are doing incredible things in the sector, says Yule, citing Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., as an example. The school is partnering with organizations such as HP for a “STEM-preneur” program, which shows students how what they’re learning in the classroom can be applied in the real world.

“This is a great example of how institutions across the country can be tackling the labour shortage for the long-term,” says Yule.

By targeting young Canadians and striving to ignite their interest in STEM at an early age, HP Canada is encouraging students to hone their skills with real-life experiences, she says.

For example, the company provided T.L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont., with a technology grant and employee volunteers, which saved its robotics program from being cancelled.

Broadly, HR departments can work with consultants to broaden recruitment efforts and adapt to rising pay expectations to fill the gap in the short-term, says Yule.

Another option is to adapt to an “on-demand style of business management,” she says, by leveraging freelance workers, who are not like the temp workers of the past and can range from marketing specialists to engineers and retired executives working as consultants.

HP Canada has also fostered a work culture that emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion, which has helped it remain competitive, says Yule.

“Not only does inclusivity attract top industry talent, it also helps our business authentically connect with a wider base of customers. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Len Murray: president and CEO of Klohn Crippen Berger

The Vancouver-based engineering firm has about 300 employees in Canada

The engineering sector covers a whole range of disciplines, from geotechnical, geoscience and electrical to mechanical and structural, according to Len Murray, president and CEO of Klohn Crippen Berger (KCB) in Vancouver.

“All of those disciplines have labour shortages and it’s very acute… in the mid-ranges, so the 10 to 20 years’ experience, there’s very few people in that range. And of course, they’re the ones who we look to to replace the retirees… we need to backfill those places, and that’s really hard to do.”

Part of the reason is because for a few years, there wasn’t a lot of recruiting going on in the resource and hydro sectors, meaning fewer graduates were entering the profession, he says.

“Also, I think there were other sectors around that time that talented scientists were going into, like the tech sector, which didn’t exist when I graduated. So there’s competition for scientists and that didn’t exist before.”

In the last four to five years, KCB has become a lot more systematic in how it recruits people, says Murray. The 300-employee Canadian firm has six grades of staff, ranging from the lower-level “a” to the top level of “f.”  And recruitment has focused on the mid-range, he says.

“I don’t think the recruiting is such a problem below that because there’s still lots of people coming out of university and such. It’s the d’s, e’s and f’s, the top 3 grades that we have really focused on.”

That’s because many of the current mid-level employees are moving up to fill senior positions that are being vacated. Sometimes, KCB hires at the very senior level but it can be hard for somebody with 40 years’ experience to start somewhere new and change how they work, says Murray.

“If we can get them at 10 to 15 years, people are still trainable, so that’s good.”

And KCB has a slightly different model in terms of compensation in that people are given a base salary along with compensation based on performance.

“The industry we’re in, there’s lots of ups and downs so by doing it that way — base salary plus a pretty substantial performance component — if we have a down year, people just don’t get that bonus so they get their base salary, but then if they do well, they do very, very well,” says Murray.

“It gives everybody a bit of protection against having to let people go when the workload drops off, because our base salary is manageable in most circumstances.”

But when the firm is hiring, job candidates aren’t always enticed by the performance side of the equation, he says.

“They think it’s smoke and mirrors, they look at their base salary — so that’s been a problem for us… We actually sweeten the pot a little bit with signing bonuses and things, and that works well. We schedule that over 18 months and the intent is by the time they’re through that, they know whether they fit in the company, we know whether they fit in the company, and then they’re in the regular bonus pools.”

Another challenge for filling the job gaps is the expensive cost of living in British Columbia, which is a very serious issue, says Murray, especially for people in the mid-range.

“Having said that, we do recruit some pretty senior people who are looking towards retirement and they often want to move to Vancouver.”

KCB also works with the University of British Columbia to source new recruits, in providing lecturers or sponsorships.

“We try to recruit co-op (students) throughout all of our offices, and that gives us a very good insight into whether someone’s going to be a fit. And for us, we’ve possibly focused more on attitude because not everybody wants to work in the mining sector,” he says.

“So, with all our recruiting, that’s another thing we’ve tried to do is not sugar-coat what we do — we’re not a lifestyle company, we expect people to work hard… We’ve taken a more forthright role in describing to people what we do, and what sectors we’re in. It’s better to weed them out at the interview process than later on. We try to get people excited about the higher level of technical competence, and work we try and win and do… not thinking so much about the money.”

KCB also makes good use of immigration programs to find potential employees.

“Our HR people are very well-versed in bringing in people from all over the place. Yeah, it’s like the United Nations here actually,” he says.

Retention can also be difficult, as turnover at KCB can range from 10 to 20 per cent if the economy is buoyant, says Murray, and the firm often has to compete with the Alberta oil industry when that industry “ticks up.”

However, once people have several years of experience under their belt, they are less likely to leave KCB, says Murray.

“People like working here; they have influence over the direction of the company and what projects they do. And why would they go anywhere else? They can do what they want (and) get reasonably well-paid for it.”

Gaëtan Thomas: president and CEO of NB Power

The Fredericton-based Crown corporation has about 2,300 employees

For Gaëtan Thomas, a labour shortage means a lack of resources, whether that is full-time, part-time or contracted services needed to meet business needs. It’s not only about access to talent, but access to skills and specialized expertise, he says.

“The aging demographic (baby boomers retiring) is being felt across all sectors, with the energy sector being particularly impacted due to the hiring done for infrastructure builds 40 years ago.”

 But as to why Canada is facing a labour shortage, that’s a complex issue, he says.

“The rate of change is rapid these days. Technology advancements as well as changing customer expectations require companies to be agile and pivot to be competitive and stay in business.”

And it will be a challenge for employers when it comes to being prepared for the shortages, says Thomas.

“Some of the skills that will be needed in the future are not yet known, and talent will need to be sourced and developed fast.”

At NB Power, finding people with specialized skills — such as those for IT and the nuclear station — is a challenge. And it’s anticipated there may soon be difficulties in finding trade resources too, he says.

“This is why we need to embrace diversity and inclusion and support more women going into non-traditional careers, like the trades… We also need to ensure we have a dynamic, innovative, winning culture to retain the talent.”

For this reason, the Crown corporation embarked on an intentional culture-shaping process three years ago, based on John Kotter’s book Accelerate, says Thomas.

“I have used the Kotter change management methodology throughout my career but the changes we were going through, which spanned the whole company, needed an enterprise change leadership approach,” he says. “Working on your corporate culture is key to attracting, retaining and engaging your workforce.”

As a result of these efforts, NB Power was named a top employer in 2017, says Thomas.

Workforce planning is also essential to ensure the utility has the skilled staff in place in anticipation of demographic changes and new business needs, he says.

“This is part of its annual business planning process where people and culture (HR) work closely with operations to ensure talent needs are known and built into plans and budgets.”

In addition, NB Power is boosting its recruitment efforts through a multi-channel approach so potential talent will see the corporation as a great employer, says Thomas.

 As the workforce changes, it’s important to understand and respond to the employee value proposition, he says.

“One-size-fits-all approaches will not work. People and culture (HR) must be strategic and have a seat at the table with operations to build a broad talent management strategy to meet the needs of the business and employees.”

 The Crown corporation also sees value in engaging in more strategic partnerships with educators in all educational areas or levels — public school, community colleges and universities — to build the skills needed for the future, says Thomas.

That includes learning program development and more experiential work experiences, he says, and “government can assist by supporting these processes.”

John Ferguson: president and CEO of Purolator

The Mississauga, Ont.-based company has more than 10,000 employees

With supply chain and transportation logistics so important to its business, Purolator faces challenges when it comes to labour supply.

“There has been some shortages happening because the market has grown quite a bit in Canada for transportation. The economy has been strong, there’s a lot more happening in e-commerce and there’s a number of tailwinds affecting the supply,” says John Ferguson, president and CEO of Purolator in Mississauga, Ont.

“It has become a challenge. It’s almost like you’re focusing more on selling to the recruiting side of business versus the actual client side, because we’ve got plenty of demand, but you’ve got to have people to do work.”

There used to be a time when Purolator had no problem finding people to come work for it, but lately it’s had to be a lot more proactive, he says, “and almost turn our HR team into a marketing team to make sure we’re communicating the benefits to working here, and getting out and communicating, ‘We’re open for business and looking to add to our workforce.’”

But it helps when your company has a strong brand.

“In our case, we have not experienced as many issues because we’re a real employer of choice, and just the nature of the work — the stability of it, the compensation, everything else — drives it towards a place where we don’t have as many problems,” says Ferguson.

“We’ve had a really good experience with bringing on talent here because I think we’ve got a great story — the brand, the career progression opportunities, things like that.”

There can be particular challenges when the 10,000-employee company is ramping up for peak seasons, however — especially when it comes to warehousing and distribution, he says.

“There’s a lot of growth, and those skills and those roles are becoming more challenging because there’s just so much going on.”

The bulk of Purolator’s hiring is for field operations, meaning couriers, drivers, people working in the sort and automated hubs. There is also a large call centre to handle the service work in Moncton.

“We’ve had good success (in Moncton) but even there it’s becoming more and more challenging because there’s a lot of (competitors) moving there as well,” says Ferguson. “We were one of the first entrants, so we were in pretty good shape, but the economy has been strong, there’s a lot more happening in these markets.”

Purolator has also ramped up its training in anticipation of increased demand for deliveries with the legalization of cannabis.

“We’re going to be a pretty big player in that, actually. We’ve got quite a bit happening there; we’ve got a new handheld technology for each courier that allows them to capture an adult signature, and they’ve been trained on how to make sure that the person is receiving it is of age and legal to use and accept the package, so (it’s meant) extra training and safety and security.”

Overall, Canada is strong compared to the United States and other parts of the world, he says, plus it has done a lot around immigration, skills and training.

The challenge has been an economy outpacing the supply, in certain sectors.

“The other big issue is urbanization… the cities are really growing and it’s creating housing issues and cost-of-living issues,” says Ferguson.

“(Purolator has) had significantly more growth than we’ve had in our 50-year history and a lot of that is due to the economy in general but also e-commerce coming in and really lifting the market. And so we’re going through a pretty major change, as a business, a pretty mature business… We’ve hired more people in the last year than we have in any other year in our history, more growth than any time in our history, more change, more technology being brought on. So we actually invest quite a bit in change management, training, all those people-related areas because we’ve had to just to keep going.”

The big investment in training has focused on process and health and safety, along with front-line leadership and re-energizing the corporate culture, he says.

Those kinds of initiatives also help with retention.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that lend itself to a place that is attractive, so we have to be competitive on the compensation side but also... we’ve got a lot of things in balance — people are really happy, our engagement scores are super strong, we’ve got good results, client services are good,” says Ferguson.

“We’re one of the last big Canadian companies, in our industry. Everything (these days) is U.S.-based or part of a multinational subsidiary, so we’re very much a Canadian-based business, and in transportation, that’s pretty rare, on this scale. So, people really like to stay — they like the history, they like the friends and relationships they have, plus we’re growing. It’s a great place to work.”

Karen Oldfield: president and CEO of the Halifax Port Authority

The Crown corporation has about 85 employees at its facilities

For the Port of Halifax and related industries, there are a few different factors in play when it comes to labour shortages, such as retiring baby boomers and changing skill sets, according to Karen Oldfield, president and CEO of the Halifax Port Authority.

“Canadian employers have had plenty of lead time to understand this was coming, and nobody should be surprised that the shift is underway. Those who were prepared will certainly benefit from having a strong and agile workforce; others will seize the opportunity to recalibrate and restructure; and as we’ve seen with other disruptive shifts, there will be companies that will struggle to adapt.”

 The effects of baby boomers moving into retirement is creating both challenges and opportunities, she says.

“I’ve attended more retirement parties in the past three years than I did in the 10 years prior so, certainly, we are not immune to the shifting labour market.”

The challenges that come with the departure of long-time, experienced workers with considerable corporate knowledge can be mitigated with succession planning — something the Halifax Port Authority has focused on, says Oldfield.

“We also use retirements as an opportunity to review best practices, implement new ways of doing things, restructure departments for efficiency, develop and promote from within, and bring in new talent to those departments where we are trying new things or moving in a new direction,” she says.

“What is exciting is the number of new people I see in the organization today, and the resulting energy and fresh ideas our new employees bring.”

There has also been a significant change in the type of jobs that are available, says Oldfield.

“Increasingly, the new positions that need skilled and qualified workers are those positions related to information technology including data management, research and, of course, positions related to STEM studies (science, technology, engineering and math),” she says.

“There is some onus on those who want the jobs to ensure they have the skills necessary to fill those positions; at the same time, companies need to recognize that existing or potential employees, especially the ones who have those specific skill sets, need to be compensated accordingly, and that means much more than simply financial compensation.”

As for the role of government and educators, a co-ordinated and strategic approach is absolutely required, says Oldfield.

“Our leaders and decision-makers need to ensure the generation of Canadian workers being trained now have the necessary skill sets and abilities to move into those positions that need to be filled now and 10 years from now.”

And while the Halifax Port Authority is seeing a mix of generations working side by side — baby boomers, generation Xers, millennials — and each are motivated in different ways, “what remains consistent among the entire workforce is the need to treat employees with respect, listen to their ideas and concerns and, perhaps most importantly, respond to their needs,” she says.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, but I think organizations should start in a place of fairness and always consider the golden rule, which is to say ‘Treat others as you wish to be treated.’”

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