Under extreme pressure

Alberta recruiters must be speedier, more decisive and much more flexible

With an unemployment rate hitting a 30-year low at 3.0 per cent and an anticipated shortfall of 86,000 workers by the year 2015, according to the province’s numbers, employers in Alberta have had to approach hiring differently from others in the rest of the country.

Signing bonuses are common, with employers offering $5,000 or so to new hires at the one-year mark, said Judy Harcourt of Edmonton-based Harcourt Recruiting Specialists. More companies are willing to pay for employees’ moving costs if they’re from out of town, she added.

Most often, though, companies are offering not just financial incentives but lifestyle sweeteners: flex time, four weeks’ vacation to start, telecommuting options, gym memberships, child-care support or on-site daycare services and parking — an increasingly lucrative item in Calgary these days, said Murray Bandura, recruiting manager at the Calgary office of staffing firm Robert Half.

But apart from sweetening the pot with perks, employers have had to change the way they recruit. Trish Ham, team leader at the Calgary office of recruiting agency About Staffing, recalled one oil and gas company seeking a senior accounting person to fill a controller position.

“We got our paperwork in place within the day. The following day they interviewed a candidate and by the end of the second day they had hired that candidate,” said Ham. “They were intelligent about it. They knew they had found a good person and they didn’t waste any time. They made the offer.”

At Sutton Place Hotel in Edmonton, HR director Sherry Scott echoed this need for speed. If a resumé comes to her via a fax or an e-mail, she can no longer afford to get to it later, as HR managers in a less frenzied market might be wont to do.

“I can’t just put (it) in an envelope and hope the department manager will look at it today because they won’t. They’re so busy,” said Scott. “I have to get right up in their face and say, ‘Okay. I’ve found a really great person. Let’s get them in the door and meet them and hire them.’”

The same goes for job fairs. Scott has to call back the candidates the next day because she knows that’s exactly what the 120 other employers at the job fair will be doing.

Scott also found a way to keep recruiting around the clock. She distributed a special set of business cards among managers and even personal contacts whose judgment she trusts. The business cards read, “You impress me.” Managers hand them out to whomever they encounter in their daily lives — a cashier at the grocery store, a waitress at a restaurant — they think would make a good employee at Sutton Place. The back of the business card invites the recipient to give Scott a call if they’re looking for a second job.

At the Calgary office of Apache Corporation, an oil and gas firm, decisiveness is paramount. In recent months, managers have been expected to clear their plates and make themselves available whenever a hiring opportunity comes up. That’s according to a directive from the very top.

“The president has said during these challenging last few months that hiring and recruitment is an absolute priority for the managers, that they need to make themselves available. Even if they have operational issues and production issues and technical issues, they need to do whatever it takes. So stay late, come early, meet through lunch, whatever,” said HR manager Barbara Atkinson.

Like Scott of Sutton Place, Atkinson can no longer afford to mull over a good resumé for a few days. Nor can she expect to find four best candidates for every position and select the one from among them. It’s certainly a different modus operandi for Atkinson, who launched her HR career in the late 1970s at a staffing and recruiting firm.

“In a different environment you wouldn’t say to your manager, ‘I’ve only got one. Here he is, now hire him,’” said Atkinson. “But now you do. ‘Here’s a guy. He’s excellent, he’s available, he fits our culture and the job description. If you want him, hire him.’”

At Apache, both HR and department managers have to be involved in interviewing candidates, but managers sometimes want to interview candidates on their own. In such cases, rather than calling in the candidate for a second visit, HR will make sure to set up its interview right after, said Atkinson.

Because the company typically goes through recruiting agencies to find candidates, these agencies will be checking references while the interviews are taking place. If a reference is not immediately available, said Atkinson, the company might still make the job offer, specifying that it’s contingent on acceptable references.

“We will debrief as soon as the interviews are over. And if the person is a go, the offer is presented immediately,” she said.

At Apache, the demand for professionals is such that, even if a candidate is not suited for an immediate opening, but is otherwise a strong fit, the company might still be inclined to hire that person.

“There are so many opportunities in so many different areas that it’s just a matter of saying, ‘Well, maybe we don’t take him for this position but we want him to grow in that position because that’s where he’s strong. We weren’t going to hire that next but let’s do so anyway,’” she said.

Some companies even go further and do away with job descriptions, said Byrne Luft, regional vice-president of staffing firm Manpower.

“They don’t hire people for the box in the organizational chart. Instead, they try to find positions that work around a person’s competency,” said Luft.

That would involve managers understanding employees enough to know what their strengths are, what they want to stay focused on and what aspects of the job they’d rather hand off to someone else. Manpower is among those adopting this concept, said Luft.

“We’re bringing people in and looking at their talent and seeing how we can maximize their talent when we integrate them in the company,” he said.

At the outset, everybody will have to perform the onerous tasks so they can learn the business at the same time they discover where their strengths and interests are, “but eventually you move them into their primary skill sets,” said Luft

The advantage of such a practice is that it completely engages the employees — “they’re doing exactly what they love to do” — and retention improves, he said. What’s more, it puts employees in positions where they’re performing at their best, thereby raising performance across the organization.

This is an example of the kind of innovation employers in a tight labour market have had to adopt, said Byrne. It’s where the future lies, he thinks, and what organizations will have to move toward in several years’ time. But in a market such as Alberta, it’s already here.

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