The little school bus company that could

Employment branding tells people 'what you're all about'

When Southland Transportation needed almost 200 new bus drivers for the start of the 2006 school year, the Calgary-based company knew it would have to take recruitment to the next level.

Competing in the hottest labour market in the country, it decided to hire an ad agency to help create a well-branded campaign that connected with potential employees. The initiative paid off, as Southland filled all its positions and won awards for print and broadcast advertising and overall campaign at the first annual Employer of Choice Marketing Awards, presented by in Toronto in March.

“Southland did an exceptional job of integrating their messaging across all media and all elements and deciding who their target was and directing their messaging so it would resonate with the target,” said Susan Hayes, general manager at

The bus company — which has about 900 part-time and 100 full-time employees and provides school buses, charters, commuter buses and shuttles — managed to fill the 194 positions by focusing its campaign on two groups: stay-at-home mothers and retirees. The challenge was to entice people who were not working, and probably not even thinking about it, but who would be well-suited to the permanent part-time work, said June Read, manager of communications and employee development at Southland.

Created with help from Highwood Communications, the campaign included television and radio spots, print ads and community events. Each had a targeted message about the job’s benefits while consistent messaging ran across all media. One tongue-in-cheek headline on a bus-side ad read “It’s like having 50 grandkids. Without raising their parents.”

The ads positioned Southland as a leader in its field and said, “If you’re a responsible, caring and safety-focused person, we want you to help us get our kids to school safely on time.” They also listed the perks of the job, such as limited hours during the day, free training and free babysitting, and directed interested candidates to call the company for “a fun, rewarding and unique job.”

Southland also organized various events to entice people, such as barbecues featuring games for kids and a restored school bus. And the company expanded its reach into ethnic communities, using staff who spoke the appropriate languages.

Recruitment is challenging for the company because of its rigorous hiring practices, which include medical, drug, eye and driving tests and extensive training.

“We get 10 per cent of the people we might interview, after they’ve all filtered through. You have to interview a huge number of people,” said Read. Once people have achieved their Class-2 licence, they often move on to full-time positions, so turnover is around 25 per cent.

Responses were closely tracked, revealing that television and newspaper ads had the highest draw. The budget for recruitment was more than previous years, due to the broadcast elements, she said, averaging about $3,000 per hire.

As for employment branding, Read admits her company had previously not done enough in that area.

“This campaign really showed us, when it comes to branding, you really have to make a concerted effort to let people know who you are and what you’re all about,” she said. “We’ll be working on that even further this year.”

With the looming talent shortages, especially in the West, “the writing is on the wall. It’s going to be increasingly more difficult to hire because of demographics, so one of the ways to differentiate is to have strong employment branding,” said Hayes. “The cost of replacing employees is much greater than the cost of building a strong employment brand and becoming a top employer. Top employers have a four-per-cent lower turnover rate than the typical employer.”

However, a marketing department will not typically recommend work on an employment brand, so it’s up to HR to advocate that it’s something that would make a big impact on the talent management of the organization, said Hayes.

“I’m trying to encourage the shift. If marketing and HR are aligned in their strategy, it’s a much more powerful impact for hiring.”

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