Temp workers living large in the West

More employers are turning to temps to fill gaps and agencies have to be creative to get the people they need

Flex hours. Increased wages. Longer contracts. Education pay. Housing allowance. Breakfast and lunch. Welcome to the new world of temporary employment in Canada’s booming West.

“It’s an employee-driven market,” said Chris Roach, a principal at staffing firm Cadre in Calgary and national president of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services. “You have to be competitive.”

Faced with surging, seemingly unstoppable business opportunities, a high employment rate and a labour shortage, more and more Western companies are turning to contract workers to fill their staffing requirements.

“There are lots of opportunities with companies that are expanding or have projects on the go,” said Ashleigh Demulder, Calgary branch manager of financial staffing services at Robert Half Canada. “Maybe they didn’t have the budget for it a couple of years ago, but it’s a sign of the times.”

And because work is so project-based, it’s “much more economical and less administrative” to have someone on contract through an agency for a year or two rather than having to hire full-time staff and laying them off at the end, said Dan Luft, vice-president of Manpower Alberta.

That means contracts are getting longer, too.

“We don’t do a lot of work that’s one week or a couple of days,” Luft said. Contracts are for nine months or even years, he added.

Few of Demulder’s group of accounting, finance, administrative and management workers are placed for one- or two-day projects anymore.

“We’re actually placing them as the interim solution while companies are doing their full-time (employee) search,” she said. The labour shortage means it’s taking longer than the standard two weeks to find replacement workers — now it’s more like five or six weeks. “That’s why there’s such a demand for temps.”

The type of work available in the hot Western market also increases the necessity for contract employees, said Luft.

“In this world of oil and gas, there can be a tendency to have more injuries when working on construction and heavy equipment,” he said. Injuries not only take down employees, but create increased costs with the workers’ compensation board. Temp and contract workers mean flexibility for the employer, “and all the risk is on us.”

Not only are the contracts longer, but more and more temps are being offered full-time jobs when their contracts are up, Luft said. Around 70 to 80 per cent of his employees become permanent hires at the end of the placements, a number that was lower before the boom.

In order to woo employees, companies are offering previously unheard of incentives. If the engineers Roach places bring their spouses west, many companies will help them find work.

“It’s a value-added service to help them find jobs,” he said. “You don’t just look at the employment situation, but also the family situation.”

That’s why flexible hours is a big bonus Demulder sees, along with companies helping fund continuing education.

Because parking is at such a premium in cities, some businesses are dishing out transportation allowances or transit passes, she added. Luft cited stock options, referral payouts, living allowances, company cars — even hot meals — as bonuses he’s seen.

And even if you get employees, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay for long.

“Getting (them) into the assignment is first, retaining them is second,” Roach said. “You have to get them to stay on assignment and keep them happy. Because they’re probably getting solicited by other companies to take other opportunities.”

Luft agreed.

“There’s competition in pay rates and employers,” he said. “Somebody will say, ‘I’ll pay you a dollar more an hour.’ And (employees) will jump around.”

So companies offer completion bonuses, some paid quarterly or after a certain number of hours, he said.

The Western boom is drawing people from all over the country, but hitting the Maritimes the hardest. There, Manpower says 30 per cent of companies will be hiring in the next quarter to combat what Roach calls “the drain from east to west.”

“We’re finding it more difficult,” said Jim Wilson, president of Staffing Services Canada in Halifax. “But I’ve repatriated some good folks who have left the Maritimes. Eighty-five per cent of those people will want to return one day.”

Heading to hot job markets is a great money grab in the short term, Wilson said, but it becomes difficult when faced with time away from families, inflated housing and living costs.

He said career fairs are targeting Western contract jobs for everything from accountants and engineers to cashiers and waitresses.

“It’s harder to find a good receptionist right now than it is to find some senior level people,” Demulder said, while Luft knows of receptionists who are pulling in $80,000. Some restaurants are only open for dinner because there are no staff for other shifts. Fast food restaurants such as Tim Hortons and Wendy’s — with their small profit margins — are shutting down because they can’t afford the wages, Luft said.

That’s because the cost of living is astronomical, Roach said. There’s fledgling infrastructure, cramped living conditions in hotels or camps and often time away from family.

“But it’s not all doom and gloom,” Luft said. “Sometimes (labour) shortages are good things, too.”

Other sectors of the contract employee market are thriving with the increased demand, Luft said. Baby boomers are coming out of retirement and making a ton of cash, while Aboriginals and disabled workers are finally being recognized as excellent employees.

“I don’t see an end (to this) in the foreseeable future,” Roach said.

Carly Foster is an Ajax Ont.-based freelance writer.

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