Skilled workers apply within

Employers using aggressive tactics to tap into unskilled labour pool.

Nearly a quarter of a million jobs in Canada are vacant because there isn’t enough skilled labour to fill them. Projections put that figure at more than a million by 2020 if the skills shortage in the country is not addressed.

The problem is simple: there aren’t enough skilled people to fill jobs in Canada. But that is also compounded by a number of aggravating factors like Canada’s aging population, the expectant surge in retirees, and the fact that many jobs go unoccupied while there is a huge pool of underdeveloped labour in the country.

For the moment, with a widespread demographic shift in the workplace on the horizon and a quickening economic pace, employers are finding some new creative ways and revisiting other traditional ways to tap into unskilled and underdeveloped labour pockets.

Some firms are looking in pockets of society that have traditionally been overlooked by employers; groups such as Aboriginals Peoples, working mothers, the disabled and “old economy” workers who may have been laid off. The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Peoples is almost triple the Canadian average and only slightly more than 50 per cent of aboriginals have completed secondary education.

For computer-manufacturing giant Compaq Canada, a shortage of skilled high-tech workers has not been the only issue they’ve had to deal with. In addition to issues around staffing a broad range of high-demand technical jobs, the firm has also had to staff hundreds of low-skilled jobs. To do this, they’ve looked in areas where most employers don’t. For its Nepean-Ont.-based call centre, Compaq Canada specifically targets groups that have been traditionally poorly represented in the workforce, or those who can’t get the skills training on their own.

“It gets them into the career stream. They finally start to feel connected to the workforce again. They are people who would not be given an opportunity to be employed or contribute to society,” said John Cardella, vice-president of human resources for Compaq Canada.

Rather than sitting back and waiting for change to happen, the company has also recently partnered with the Ottawa-based community college, La Cite collegiale, donating more than $600,000 for the school’s professional call-centre training program.

“In order to bring people into these jobs, we also have to start tapping into the colleges and universities in a unique way.”

Most of the employees hired to staff the call centre have no experience or specific skills needed for the job. New hires go through intense two-week in-house training and are then put on the job, with four-weeks of additional training after that. From there, employees can ask for more training and eventually move their way up in to other technical careers.

With ongoing skills training at Compaq, call centre work can be only the beginning of the skills-learning curve.

“(Call centre employees) can take further training, get certified and move around in the company which helps us keep fully staffed. It’s a strategy that is paying off for us,” said Cardella.

Ongoing training also means retraining employees who may have lost their jobs but who can transfer their knowledge and skills to other industries in need of labour.

“We believe that part of the solution is to pay more attention to transferable skills already available in the workforce,” said Ray Ivany, president of Nova Scotia Community College.

Looking at the skills individuals had and not what they lacked was the starting point for a pilot project to retrain displaced fisheries workers at the college, said Ivany.

“Rather than looking at formal credentials, the success of that program was predicated on valuing what people already knew how to do.”

The 15-week program aimed at retraining some 20 fisheries workers for jobs as seaman on offshore support vessels. Two supply vessel companies were asked to provide a list of work skills they require of their employees in order to keep the program relevant to employer’s expectations.

“We were building on previously acquired skills. We recognized the similarity between the jobs and all we did was take that background and skills and build on it. They were very employable (after completing the program),” said Peter Dunford, the college’s director of marine training.

Though still only a minority, more employers are returning to some traditional methods in the race to find skilled labour, offering co-operative and apprenticeship programs to students with the aim of starting the training process early in the careers of budding employees. The co-operative program at Toronto-based Franklin Templeton Investments is producing high returns. About 70 per cent of the college students who participated in the firm’s co-operative program last year returned as full-time employees of the company. The firm was awarded with the Outstanding Business and Education Award for its program by the Conference Board of Canada in April.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to get enthusiastic, young minds into our organization in a way that meets our business needs. When these students come back they are already skilled,” said Sherry Dondo, vice-president of human resources at Franklin Templeton.

“It’s really a win-win situation for both the organization and the students. It allows us to meet our staffing needs and the students come out with sound business experience.”

The firm’s program is run twice a year with 10 to 20 college students participating in every four-month placement. Students are usually trained in areas where the business needs labour, like client operations during the busy RSP seasons. Training consists of two to five weeks of formal, in-class training and ongoing mentoring by senior staff.

“The students who work with us don’t only learn specific industry information and skills but they are learning very good, general business skills. Whether they stay with us or not, they leave here feeling pretty well prepared for the workforce,” said Dondo.

Tapping into the youth market early on and providing that training is one solution. But some industries still struggle to attract younger workers like the trades, where the average age of employees is 50 and the trucking industry who recently mounted an aggressive educational campaign to lure younger employees into the job market.

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