Alberta’s a sign of things to come

Employers get creative to attract workers

There’s a joke going around Alberta that says the government is planning to change the slogan on licence plates from “Alberta — Wild Rose Country” to “Alberta — Help Wanted”.

It strikes pretty close to home. Drive down the street in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie — or any of the smaller locales near these centres — and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes counting the “Help Wanted” signs. The high-needs areas can be professional, such as engineering, accounting and construction management, or they can be entry-level. Retail outlets and fast-food locations are frequently forced to close early because they can’t get enough staff.

In Alberta, the oil boom tidal wave has been the biggest force fuelling the desperation. In many other parts of the country, the growth may be slower, but the water is rising. It’s simple demographics — there are more people retiring than there are to replace them. Up until a couple of years ago, most companies saw this as a distant problem, so they haven’t been planning for the next generation of leaders. In Alberta, the economic boom sped up the need, making a potential problem 10 years down the road a crisis today.

Complicating this is the fact that, in some industries, an economic slowdown a decade ago is still being felt in staffing levels. A civil engineering grad in 1996 would have been lucky to find a job out of school. Many didn’t and left the industry. Now, with infrastructure projects booming throughout Western Canada, many companies don’t have access to the staff to complete everything they’d like to bid on. Ten years ago, construction projects were on the downswing. Many high schools severely cut back industrial and trades training and sold off equipment. Now an experienced carpenter, mechanic or machinist can get as many job offers as places they approach.

So what’s an organization to do? For those with deep pockets, this has meant getting creative financially. Market forces have conspired to erase the notion of a minimum-wage job. Even a few years ago, it was rare to see relocation as part of a job offer. Now, for professional roles, it’s standard. In the skilled trades, as well as in engineering and some other high-demand areas, companies often offer signing bonuses from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The smart companies tie this to a retention strategy. The signing bonus is repayable if the employee leaves within the first year.

In places like the oilsands capital of Fort McMurray, meanwhile, there are serious challenges to attraction and retention that can only be met with financial solutions. With a vacancy rate of 0.3 per cent, housing costs are astoundingly high, forcing many companies to offset pay with a “living out allowance” of about $3,300 per month. With rampant job-hopping, some of the large oilsands companies have realized the best way to make people stay in harsh conditions is to make it worth their while. Equipment operators are offered five-year-contracts that have a payout at the end of up to $20,000 a year.

For most organizations, though, these kinds of payouts are just not possible. Instead, they’ve come up with other ways to attract and retain staff.

Many employers have found the need to relax otherwise stringent policies on benefits and vacation time, such as starting people at three weeks’ vacation and having vacation and benefits kick in from day one. One IT company is adding a “personal time” clause into contracts. In addition to regular vacation days, staff have five personal days a year where, at their supervisor’s discretion, they can take a day or an afternoon off to get things done, create a long weekend or make a tee time. A manufacturing client does a staff draw for an all-terrain vehicle twice a year.

For some, it’s a lifestyle question of finding ways to offer flex time. Plant workers in Athabasca and Fort Saskatchewan put in slightly longer days, and every other Friday the plant shuts down completely.

In many cases there’s more of a focus on staff culture than ever before. For management, this can mean courses in conflict resolution and staff development. Because it’s so easy for staff to jump ship to a competitor, heavy-handed managers are in too much danger of losing people. Workplace culture perks, such as staff barbecues and funding for training, are becoming more common.

While the perception that a worker can arrive at the border and be handed a bucket of oil and a gold brick isn’t quite true, the boom has ramped up demand incredibly and it’s spilling outside of Alberta’s borders. It may not be long before Wild Rose Country shows itself to be a microcosm of the rest of the Canadian economy.

Rick Harcourt is an executive recruiter with Edmonton-based Harcourt Recruiting Specialists. He can be reached at [email protected], at (780) 425-5555, or at

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