HR leaders talk

Dealing with the labour shortage

Sharif Khan
Vice-president of human resources
Microsoft Canada

The Canadian arm of global software giant Microsoft has 1,000 employees with headquarters in Mississauga, Ont.

For nearly one year, Sharif Khan, vice-president of HR at Microsoft Canada, has been espousing the benefits of job sharing and part-time work.

In Europe, where Khan worked for Microsoft before returning to Canada nearly two years ago, about 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce works part time or job share, whereas in North America that percentage is only about three per cent, he says.

But with 10 to 15 per cent of the workforce not willing to work full time, companies that don’t offer this flexibility limit their pool of job candidates — a costly mistake in a tight labour market.

At Microsoft Canada, Khan has had to fight the attitude that employees can’t manage the job on a part-time basis.

“It had always been a big no-no here,” says Khan.

All his hard work has paid off and the software giant, which has its Canadian headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., has finally posted its first part-time position.

“Suddenly we’ve expanded our database of potential candidates by 10 per cent,” says Khan.

Creating part-time positions is part of Microsoft’s plan to offer more flexible work arrangements as a way to attract workers to the company to deal with the projected labour shortage when the baby boomers begin retiring en masse in 2010.

“I’m predicting in the next three to five years we’re going to have a lot more people, both the Y gens and the baby boomers, who are going to want more flexibility in their life,” says Khan. “They’re going to want more balance.”

In an effort to attract more young workers and retain older workers, Khan is also examining the option of flexible benefits, specifically health-care spending accounts and benefit options that help employees care for aging parents.

Microsoft is also promoting its I Volunteer program, which gives employees five days off a year to do community work. This is of particular interest to younger workers, says Khan.

“Community work is so ingrained in the way they think and the way they are motivated,” he says.

While the predicted labour shortage is expected to hit in the next three to five years, Microsoft is already feeling the effects of an aging population coupled with fewer younger workers entering the technology field.

“We already see a deficit of skill sets that we’re not finding in Canada that we need to think of creative ways to address,” he says.

In particular demand are technology architects and senior managers, says Khan. But the company has shortages in all technology-related roles. Since the entire technology sector is facing a shortage of workers, the competition for top talent is fierce, says Khan.

To get a leg up on other companies, Microsoft is turning to immigrants, women and the global workforce to find employees.

“Women make up (more than) 50 per cent of the population but only 30 per cent of Microsoft in Canada and 20 to 25 per cent of the technology industry. So there’s a huge opportunity there,” says Khan.

Many students, but more females than males, are opting out of science and technology in high school and they aren’t pursuing higher education or careers in the field, says Khan. If the industry doesn’t figure out why that’s happening and reverse the trend soon, the labour shortage is only going to get worse.

Part of attracting women to the company is showing them there’s more to Microsoft than “technology geeks,” says Khan. “A lot of women don’t think of working for Microsoft. They don’t think it’s a very attractive place for women to work.”

But there is a range of careers available that could appeal to women, including marketing and sales, he says.

While the company is looking at younger workers as a source for technology positions, it’s turning to older workers for senior management positions.

As for attracting immigrants and foreign-trained professionals, Microsoft’s senior managers are taking part in the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council’s (TRIEC) mentorship program. This experience will give them a better understanding of the skill level and experience available in the immigrant population, says Khan.

Reaching out to different demographics and tapping the immigrant pool in Canada has gotten the company about 95 per cent of the way to solving its labour woes, says Khan.

For the remaining five per cent, Microsoft Canada is reaching out to the global market.

“We’re a global company with 80,000 employees around the world, so we tap that,” says Khan

When these global employees take a job with Microsoft Canada, the company wants to ensure they have a good relocation experience, says Khan. The technology services department has been working on this with HR to help these new employees find homes and schools for their children, as well as helping them obtain a social insurance number and a health-care card — support other companies might not think of offering.

“The traditional thinking is that ‘They’re immigrating to Canada anyway, let’s just help them out with a little bit of money, they’ll sort out everything themselves,’” says Khan. “That’s not enough. We need these people so let’s make sure they have a great experience coming to Canada.”

Lynn Roger
Vice-president talent acquisition, planning and development
BMO Financial Group

BMO Financial Group is a Toronto-based financial institution with 35,000 employees.

Lynn Roger arrived at the Bank of Montreal straight out of high school and “after four months on the job, I felt that perhaps I’d like to sit in the chair of the person I was taking dictation from.”

In her 28 years with the company, she has done just that, going from secretary to vice-president of talent acquisition, planning and development at BMO Financial Group in Toronto. She now has a 20-person team devoted to enterprise-wide accountability at the 35,000-employee company.

But when asked about the much-anticipated talent shortage, she says it’s kind of a funny question.

“It’s described as a crisis because companies have not been proactive in planning for this. In business, there are things that are unpredictable, like government regulations and business strategy with the entrance of new competition, but the one thing that was predictable is the aging demographic profile of our workforce.

“It kind of takes me aback, when I see businesses which are in the business of shareholder returns and customers, that they wouldn’t be proactive in anticipating this talent shortage.”

BMO has been practicing succession planning for decades but equally important is workforce planning, understanding the internal talent supply, says Roger. So every year, managers must assess their workforce, measure it against where the business is going in the next three to five years, what skills, knowledge and capabilities are required and predict how many leaders are needed.

“That leads to the development of HR strategies, of which recruitment is a potential solution, as is the redeployment of talent or promotion.”

BMO is also focusing the talent spotlight on mature workers, new immigrants, people with disabilities and Aboriginals. There’s a myth that older employees are less productive or less loyal but employee surveys show the segment is the most loyal and keen to stay and is an excellent source for mentors, says Roger.

“Instead of saying, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ savvy employers are going to see these opportunities and really try to re-engage older workers into very challenging roles.”

Key to this success is making sure managers are educated about the myths and realities, she says, and shown how to leverage this workforce.

“The challenges managers of the next generation are going to be facing, for the first time, are individuals of different cultural backgrounds, different ages and people with disabilities. It’s very broad and challenging… so we want to make sure they are equipped to create a very inclusive environment.”

As for which departments are involved to help with the talent acquisition, Roger says it’s the company as a whole that is responsible.

“It’s not an HR-driven process, it’s a business-driven process. We’re at the table in terms of designing the right programs and processes, working with leaders to enable programs and processes to support them. It’s everybody’s job, it’s not HR’s job, and that’s a reality HR professionals really need to embrace. It’s a business imperative and it’s kind of funny for years it was on HR’s shoulders. It was on the wrong shoulders.

“Sometimes HR is its own worse enemy. HR professionals have to demonstrate to the businesses what loss will occur in the business if we don’t take this as a business problem and not an HR problem.”

If HR professionals develop strong business acumen and stop using HR speak, that’s one way to start influencing change, she says. BMO has two proprietary programs to ensure HR professionals who work with business leaders are very capable, can understand a balance sheet and sharpen their business insights.

“That’s really the shift, in making this a business imperative, versus ‘Here comes HR with their big binders and they’re asking us to do this annual process that really doesn’t have any linkage whatsoever to my business.’”

Roger’s team at BMO is also driving forth a talent mindset, which means attracting and retaining talented people while allowing them to move around the company.

“We really look at how we are developing our people. The number-one retention factor for employees is quality of managers but they also want challenging work so we take that seriously and make sure we have metrics in place to make sure that happens.”

Roger has also been given a mandate to create an enterprise-wide referral program.

“If we think of ourselves as 35,000-people strong, on the lookout for great talent, can you imagine how powerful that is?”

In the end, the trick is to calculate the gap between supply and demand and develop workforce plans to close it.

“It sounds really, really simple — it’s very, very hard. I would argue half of companies are not really doing workforce planning. We have to stop the talk and start executing on the plan. Some companies are and will be at a disadvantage because they haven’t prepared for this. Sometimes you have to say the sky is falling for people to react.”

Stephen Gould
Senior vice-president of HR
Purolator Courier

The Canadian owned and operated courier service has 12,500 employees and its head office is located in Mississauga, Ont.

The attitudes of the next generation of workers, combined with baby boomer retirements, is making it increasingly hard for Purolator Courier to meet its labour needs, according to the company’s head of human resources.

“It’s not just the labour shortage,” says Stephen Gould, senior vice-president of HR for Purolator. “It’s the labour shortage plus the behaviour of the Gen Y that makes retention a bigger challenge.”

The younger generation has high expectations from employers and is very demanding, says Gould. And if they don’t get what they want, they’re more likely to leave if a better opportunity presents itself.

“They don’t have the same loyalty factor as previous generations,” says Gould.

While the labour shortage and the ease with which the younger generation will move from job to job will cause problems for companies, Gould compares the doom and gloom predictions to those leading up to Y2K.

“It’s definitely an issue and it’s going to be a challenge. Whether it’s a full-blown crisis, I’m not sure I believe that,” he says.

Where the labour shortage is most critical for Purolator is among its truck drivers, “our lifeblood,” says Gould.

Instead of relying solely on drivers who are already licensed and in high demand right across the country, Purolator has decided to train and license its own drivers.

The company opened a driver school in Toronto and will be opening two others in Montreal and Calgary this year. The school takes Purolator employees who are interested in becoming drivers and trains them to exactly meet the company’s needs.

Looking down the road, Gould thinks it will be harder to fill shift-work positions, especially those that go until 11 p.m. or midnight because workers will have the ability to choose a job that better meets their needs.

He also predicts it will be harder to retain people in the higher-paying management and professional jobs.

“Companies, as the labour market tightens further, will resort to throwing obnoxious amounts of money at people,” says Gould.

Purolator doesn’t have the profit margins to offer gigantic salaries or build employee lounges with cappuccino makers and foosball tables like many of the companies on top employer lists, says Gould. Instead, the company has decided to focus on creating a safe and healthy workplace.

Part of this strategy includes investing in infrastructure and facilities. Earlier this year, the company opened a brand-new, state-of-the-art $50-million facility in Montreal to replace the older, run-down offices and warehouses it had around the city.

“A large part of the reason for making that investment was to create a much better working environment for employees,” says Gould.

The company has also introduced flexible benefits and will introduce a more flexible pension plan later this year, he says.

In an effort to build company loyalty, Purolator supports community groups that help feed the hungry and encourages employees to help out, says Gould.

The emotional connection an employee feels for the company when he’s able to give back to his community is more significant than frivolous perks such as being able to play basketball at work, he says.

When it comes to other perks and benefits, Purolator has to find a solution that will work across the country but is also flexible enough to deal with specific issues, says Gould.

While companies in Alberta are bending over backwards to find and keep workers, Purolator, which has Teamsters Canada as its biggest union, can’t afford to give too much to one group of employees while seemingly neglecting those who work in other parts of the country.

“You’ve got to balance the need for targeted initiatives with the need to be consistent and fair across your entire employee base,” says Gould.

As such, HR works closely with the unions to develop flexible solutions. In Alberta, the company is able to offer signing bonuses, retention bonuses, tuition reimbursement and benefits for part-time employees.

“In that market you really have to try anything and everything you think will work,” says Gould.

As part of retaining and growing professionals, HR is spending more time on performance management. Gould ensures every management and professional employee gets to talk with HR about his career path and development plan. This shows the employees the company is interested in them progressing and developing their skills, says Gould.

While the idea isn’t groundbreaking, it’s no easy feat for a company with thousands of professional employees across the country, he says.

Keri Daniel
Manager of human resources

The global design firm has 290 employees at its Canadian headquarters in Toronto.

Because architecture and design firm HOK needs to attract and retain the most creative employees, the HR department has to be equally creative with its strategies.

“We’re faced with a unique challenge because the industry (architecture and design) is so cyclical,” says Keri Daniel, manager of HR. “Employees leave the profession during downtimes and we experience big gaps in the talent pool. In the 1990s, for example, because of an economic downturn, a lot of architects left the business to take on a different career.

“Now we are expecting a new gap opening up at the senior level and we need to address getting future leaders down the pipeline. In 10 years, we are going to lose some key people to retirement.”

That being said, Daniel is careful to add that HOK’s recruitment and retention strategies are not just aimed at luring or holding onto more experienced employees; but rather to do so for all ages of staff, recognizing that a successful recruitment and retention strategy must work across the entire organization to battle a large-scale labour shortage in the long run.

One of the company’s chief strategies is to focus on being a great place to work. And one way to do that is by living up to its external brand promise to customers — offering innovative, sustainable design — internally, says Daniel. The company’s modern, white, bright and open-space Toronto studio is a sustainable office design that received a LEED-CI gold certification. This environmental stamp of approval (the acronym means Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Commercial Interiors) comes from the United States Green Building Council.

“Part of the reason I joined the company (five months ago) was because of the amazing office environment,” says Daniel.

To receive the LEED nod, the office had to be more than just healthy and safe. Among the long list of requirements, the space saves on energy and offers plenty of light and fresh air. The offices are divided by translucent and transparent glass walls, and every workstation has an ergonomically designed chair. Employees can also open the windows for fresh air, says Daniel.

Another unique HR strategy at HOK is customizable work hours on an as-needed basis. Daniel says alternative arrangements are key to recruiting and retaining architects and interior designers. So, when suitable, employees are able to work out desirable schedules tailored to their own needs. For example, many people are working four days a week, some staff receive unpaid job-protected leave and one employee recently worked out an arrangement where she works four years and gets one year off.

HOK also addresses a big lifestyle concern for employees: accessible daycare. It pays membership fees to Kids and Co., a partnership among daycare facilities that effectively guarantees HOK staff spots for their children. That’s a covetable workplace benefit in Toronto where there are long waiting lists at most downtown daycare facilities. The company also recently enabled the same time- and sanity-saving benefit for finding elder care help on a backup basis. (For example, when an employee has a conflict with looking after a parent and a work meeting.)

“We recognize many employees are part of the sandwich generation, too.”

HOK is now turning its attention to succession planning.

“Our other huge investment is in training and retraining to increase knowledge to younger workers,” says Daniel.

In that vein, the organization zeros in on internal development by creating a coaching and mentoring culture to develop junior staff, as well as looking for and providing internal mobility options. Daniel says because the firm has so many diverse work areas including commercial, government, health care, retail and hospitality, the option is particularly appealing to employees looking for variety.

The company also offers “HOKU” (short for HOK University), where 40 paid hours per year can be taken any time to enable employees to study or take exams to obtain either their architect licence with the Ontario Association of Architects or registration with the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario. And HOK continues to assess other recruitment and retention options, such as extending benefits past retirement.

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