CEOs talk about workforce development

Tapping into available labour pools requires a variety of solutions, from connecting geographically separated employee groups to seeking out foreign workers to reaching out to Aboriginal communities, minorities and women

Tony Franceschini
President and Chief Executive Officer
This Edmonton-headquartered professional design and consulting firm employs 5,600 employees throughout 20 offices in Canada, 40 offices in the United States and two offices in the Caribbean.

In the business of designing, planning and managing building projects, work comes in cycles. Project-driven hiring and “dehiring” are the norm, as is — or rather, was the case in the past — the practice of moving people from project to project. Not so at Stantec, says president and CEO Tony Franceschini.

“We try to keep a consistent workforce. We know that infrastructure projects are going to vary, so we made a conscious decision that perhaps we wouldn’t grow as much or perhaps we wouldn’t do as much of those large infrastructure projects that require you to have a large contingency staff,” says Franceschini.

But operating out of 12 or 15 distinct geographical regions in Canada and the United States, Franceschini sees great variances in work demand at any given time. The market has been hot in Alberta and southern California for several years, whereas it’s tepid in places such as western New York state, parts of Tennessee, parts of South Carolina, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“The issue that we struggle with is how do we take talent in those areas and use them in areas where we’re really busy?” summed up Franceschini, who was appointed CEO in 1998, 20 years after he first joined the company.

“Unlike perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, people today in general are less willing to move. Quality of life is important so people are not likely to pick up their families and move from one area where you have a surplus of labour to another area where there’s a shortage.”

In the last eight years, the answer has been to distribute the work virtually. This strategy is made easier in part thanks to the largely knowledge-based workforce. (About half of the staff are professionals such as engineers, architects, environmental scientists, interior designers; another 1,500 are technologists and technicians trained at community colleges, with the remainder working in support roles.)

For example, the company is currently working on a private-public partnership project to design a ring road in Edmonton. Out of the 12 bridge structures that Stantec is working on, three have been sent to staff at the Rochester, N.Y., office, and two were sent to Raleigh, N.C., along with design criteria as specified by the project team in Edmonton.

To make this happen, the company has had to undertake an initiative to standardize the technology and the internal design systems across about 60 offices. Even with a seemingly simple matter such as how to handle the 40 different layers in an individual drawing, everything has to be spelled out. What colour does one use to draw the foundation or in which order are the layers laid down?

“Trying to set up all the protocols appears straightforward but it’s a big issue because you’ve got to get everybody thinking the same way, which means you get into a debate about what’s better and individual preferences and so forth,” says Franceschini.

“We had to transform the culture of the company to operate like a virtual company regardless of where you were.”

Stantec started this cultural transformation about seven years ago, and it has only been in the last year or so that Franceschini can see the new culture really take hold. People resisted giving up control over their work. They were reluctant to work with people they hadn’t seen. They also wanted to keep work for themselves out of concern over what would happen when the work runs out, says Franceschini.

The change in culture required changes in compensation and feedback systems. The bonus pay program was rewritten to reflect five different measures of performance: individual performance, overall company performance, regional performance, the performance of particular practice areas, as well as the performance of particular profit centres.

“People initially realize that in order to maximize your bonus, all of those things have to do well. The way you maximize regional performance is to co-operate among the profit centres in a region, and the way you maximize practice area performance is to co-operate in the practice area across the company.”

Performance appraisal was redesigned to take on a “three dimensional” structure. Each individual now has at least two people whose feedback goes into the person’s assessment. These would include a superior within the region as well as a superior within the same practice area. Some individuals have a third person, a leader from the same sector such as health care or aviation, whose input also rounds out the person’s appraisal.

Sharing work across the company keeps everybody occupied and keeps layoffs to a minimum, says Franceschini. (The last major layoff was in the 1980s; more recently, an office in Syracuse, N.Y., was closed down, putting 20 people out of work, says the company spokesperson.)

“If you try to be an employer of choice that means fundamentally being able to attract and retain the best staff to work on the best projects and work for the best clients. To do that, you have to provide a long-term vision for the staff. Here’s the kind of company we are. If you join this company, you are not just working project to project. There’s a long-term plan and vision in how we maintain and share work.”

Patrick Sullivan
The Toronto-based company features online advertisements for jobs across Canada and employs about 60 people. Workopolis is a partnership between the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Gesca Ltd., the newspaper publishing subsidiary of Power Corporation of Canada.

Workopolis has the unique opportunity of being able to profit from a looming labour shortage, says company president Patrick Sullivan.

“We’re in the business of finding people for other employers,” says Sullivan. “I expect that (a labour shortage) will probably help my business over the next 10 years because as it becomes more difficult to find employees, employers will have to search more widely, which means they will have to search nationally or even internationally.”

However, Sullivan thinks Workopolis can play a part in finding solutions to the problem.

“It’s important for us as leaders in the employment market to communicate to government leaders that there are things that they should be doing to help us solve this looming shortage.”

He says the government should reduce the tax burden on job creation and make changes to the immigration system. Canada will increasingly rely on immigrants to keep the population growing and they will be an important factor in solving the labour shortage, he adds.

Sullivan is already turning to the pool of highly educated new Canadians to meet his labour needs. Half of the Workopolis staff work in the IT department and Sullivan says that the traditional Canadian education system isn’t meeting the company’s needs.

“We have a very diverse, multicultural IT department. Many of them are recent immigrants to Canada, which is great. I would like to think that Canadian institutions are doing a great job but I don’t know if there are enough graduates to meet our IT needs.”

Schools are also struggling to get students into skilled trades and these sectors are already experiencing a shortage. Programs such as co-op experience and apprenticeships would show students and their parents that they have post-secondary options other than just university, says Sullivan

He adds that there’s an opportunity for the business community to link more closely with schools to develop these programs and get students involved with various employers at an earlier stage in their education.

“Many times parents want their child to get a university degree and many times that’s not the right ticket for the students. They should understand that there are a host of opportunities out there and employers should make sure that they’re presenting those opportunities early enough so that students can become aware of them and make decisions in high school to approach some of those programs.”

Private-public partnerships can play a key role in providing solutions to the labour shortage, says Sullivan. One such partnership is Social and Enterprise Development Innovations, a national charitable organization that works with non-profit groups and businesses to help at-risk individuals get back into the workforce. That might include helping people who are struggling financially go back to school or helping the working poor get into the mainstream workforce.

While Workopolis, which only has about 60 employees, still hasn’t partnered with federal or provincial governments for job creation initiatives, Sullivan says that’s a relationship he would like to explore.

“The government still thinks of itself as fairly responsible for job creation and for communicating to jobseekers about jobs. Clearly if they partner with the private sector, I think they could get that message out much more effectively.”

Michelle Carinci
President and Chief Executive Officer
Atlantic Lottery Corporation
The Moncton, N.B.-headquartered corporation is owned by the four Atlantic provincial governments and employs 500 people located throughout Atlantic Canada.

At the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, where the majority of staff are professionals in sales, marketing, information technology and finance, recruiters experience hiring difficulties in only a number of specific positions: marketing, senior IT function and senior organizational development people.

Michelle Carinci, president and chief executive officer, isn’t worried about these difficulties; “they will correct themselves,” she says.

What is more of a long-term, structural challenge, she notes, is the changing relationship organizations have with employees.

“In this world of mobility and individualism, it’s a challenge for organizations to make sure that they have the environment attractive enough to retain the skills. I don’t see this as an Atlantic Canada issue, but a business and institutional issue,” says Carinci.

“To me that means that even though we don’t have a labour shortage, we have to be competitive on every front.”

At Atlantic Lottery Corporation, the answer to this challenge is a work environment that offers individuals a challenging career. “It’s critical that people feel that they have a career path and a development plan,” says Carinci.

The corporation’s performance management gives each person a sense of how each is connected to the overall business plan, she says. Plus, leadership training throughout the organization instills a sense of accountability at all levels — “it’s not specific to those in management positions, because we view everybody as a leader in their own right.”

An emphasis on cross-functional development “allows people to be innovative and challenged,” says Carinci. “That means you have to overlook what the title says. For example you have an IT person who might be perfect for an innovative piece in marketing. It’s being open-minded and allowing those people to grow across the organization.”

And as the workforce ages — the average age of workers at the Atlantic Lottery Corporation is 45 — increased flexibility will be a key element in a response to that challenge.

For example, says Carinci, “if (employees) are not ready to retire but they don’t want to be working full time and you want to retain the corporate memory and skills, you need to be flexible when you look at your aging workforce — whether that’s contract or seasonal employment or flexible work arrangements or those things that we have in place and are starting to develop.”

It’s also important for employers to understand the gaps in the organization, adds Carinci. That’s why the Atlantic Lottery Corporation has started to team up with a game developer to look at potential game opportunities in the future, and then to discuss with post-secondary institutions possible ways to develop the skills needed to work on such products.

“They also have similar needs as we do,” says Carinci in referring to the game software and hardware supplier. “So we need to collaborate not just with each other but with the educational institutions to ensure that we’re getting the skills and competencies coming out of school — so that we can employ those folks. And so the cycle begins. Young folks want to go in (to a program of study) because they know they can come out with jobs and they stay in the region.”

John Hogerland
Site Leader
Adobe Systems Canada
Headquartered in Ottawa, Adobe’s Canadian operations employs more than 300 people in its Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo, Ont., offices.

As a high-profile software developer of digital publishing programs, Adobe can generally count on a steady stream of resumés from people all over the world. Not being able to find workers isn’t a concern, says John Hogerland, head of Adobe’s operations in Canada.

That said, “how we do look at it is we’re in aggressive competition with our peers for the best and the brightest globally,” says Hogerland.

“So if I’m looking for a senior director of research and development, I want to make sure that I have the very best senior director of research and development, and I would prefer that that person doesn’t work for IBM or Microsoft or Cognos or anybody else for that matter.”

What that means is retention remains a worry. One answer to the retention problem is “to focus heavily on developing inside the organization and on building talent and skills based on potential.”

A strong emphasis on learning and development is part of that strategy. Adobe’s performance appraisal program emphasizes quarterly objectives, as well as annual goals and career goals. These would include both stretch goals and standard goals, measured within a period of time that’s strictly adhered to.

The company takes this program so seriously that “management bonuses are not paid out if this is not done properly,” says Hogerland. “It’s a lot of work but what it does is allow me as a manager to continually expand the role of people, giving them the ability to learn things on the job and to add more value to the organization.”

Whereas performance appraisals in other organizations might mean objectives that sit in people’s drawers, Hogerland says he reviews his team’s objectives regularly — every two weeks. “And the reason why is they’re tied to my business objectives. They’re not artificial.”

The company also promotes formal learning, with a specific training curriculum on leadership that’s targeted at everyone all the way up the company. There’s also a management curriculum and a broad suite of courses for individual learning, both online and classroom-based.

In addition, Adobe gives employees access to external training programs, with training reimbursements of up to $10,000 a year. The subsidy is available even for courses not related to a person’s position, says Hogerland, adding that in the high-tech industry, job rotation and evolution is very important.

“Allowing people to enhance their abilities, even in areas that are tangential to their jobs, is critical. Because ultimately that’s what that employee wants to do. Why not allow them to do it?”

He cites as an example his administrative assistant who, after six years, had “hit the wall” in her role. What she wanted was to work in project management, so Hogerland approved a subsidy for her to obtain a college degree in project management by taking evening courses.

“Three-quarters of the way through that there was a new opportunity that came up in a different group and because of that, we were able to move her into another role. So she’s using the skills that she had developed,” says Hogerland.

“And what if I hadn’t done that? She would probably be looking for something outside our company and I would have lost a very valuable employee.”

Janet Plante
Chief Executive Officer
Davco Machine Ltd.
The Grande Prairie, Alta.-based firm designs and builds equipment for the forestry, construction, oil and gas industries. The company has 66 employees, the majority of whom are machinists, welders, mechanics or millwrights.

A partnership with technical schools in Edmonton generated a lot of interest among students to apprentice at Davco, located in Grande Prairie in northern Alberta, says the company’s chief executive officer.

But the facility didn’t have enough journeymen to meet the requirement of one journeyman tradesperson for every apprentice, says Janet Plante.

“We really needed to look to finding more journeymen.”

The company signed up for the Government of Alberta’s foreign worker readiness program in Edmonton and travelled to Germany to take part in a job fair hosted by the provincial government.

In Germany, the unemployment rate is about 10 per cent and when a worker is unemployed the government requires him to go back to school, resulting in a highly educated labour pool. Once there, Davco recruited four journeymen machinists.

“We had absolutely no problem having them be interested in coming over to Canada,” says Plante, adding that there were some cultural differences at first. The company had to work at incorporating the German workers into the workplace, but in the end it was worth it. “They’re quite happy here and would really like to stay.”

Plante says she’s worried about the effects of the much talked about labour shortage on her company. “We’ve doubled our size in the last two years and I don’t see that slowing down. So not only are we concerned about the normal attrition that businesses have, but we need new people as well.”

To mitigate the effects of a labour shortage, Plante says Davco is actively recruiting people in target populations — women, Aboriginals and immigrants — who haven’t traditionally worked in the skilled trades.

But expanding a company’s search for skilled workers into those populations requires a significant amount of cultural sensitivity training for existing managers, says Plante.

“We’re trying to train our leaders to make the environment comfortable for everybody.”

Getting young people interested in the skilled trades is another approach that’s needed to combat a labour shortage.

Davco has been actively pursuing relationships with training facilities and schools around Grande Prairie and giving presentations to inform students about their options. The company has also partnered with high schools as part of the registered apprenticeship program so that by the time a student graduates secondary school, he’ll be in his second year of apprenticeship.

Davco’s relationship with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton has been very fruitful. The trade school developed a math course specific to Davco for the company’s apprentices and any other employees who were interested. Plante says that the company is also pursuing leadership and train-the-trainer programs with the trade school.

NAIT offers local training for three of Davco’s four skilled trades and Plante says the company has been in talks with the school to offer the fourth, the machinist program, locally as well. One possibility is that the school will offer the first three years of the program locally so that apprentices only have to go to Edmonton for their fourth and final year.

While partnering with educational institutions is an important way to address the looming shortage, Plante says that businesses have to take a more proactive role in training as well.

“The apprenticeship programs are industry driven, but we have to go the next step and we have to train the people in-house. We have to be part of the bigger picture, rather than just concentrating on getting the job done.”

Davco has internal training for all its employees. If a welder wants to take a machinist training course, she’s more than welcome. The company pays for the instructor and employees come in on their own time for the course.

After the training, employees can practice with whatever material is available. Plante says the program is very popular and that employees are quite willing to give up a Saturday to take part.

One of the biggest challenges Davco faces is convincing apprentices and journeymen to leave the larger cities such as Edmonton and Calgary for northern Alberta, says Plante. To overcome that obstacle and convince people to move to smaller communities, far away from urban centres, Plante says that companies, communities and governments need to change people’s preconceptions.

“Once you’re up here you realize we have everything,” she says.

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