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Finders (&) Keepers

What the top employers are doing to attract and retain the talent they need – affordably

Mar 1, 2009

by Michael McCullough

A passing look at one of our Alberta’s Best Workplaces finalists shows that it offers its employees the kind of perks and benefits you’d expect from any large employer. It chips up to 3% of salary into a group RRSP. New moms get their employment insurance topped up to 100% of their former salary for the first six weeks of maternity leave. Employees are entitled to a $600 annual fitness allowance and up to 10% of profits are distributed quarterly as bonuses.

Only Solution 105 Consulting Ltd. is not a large employer. With just nine staff, it’s the smallest organization among the finalists in our 2009 Alberta’s Best Workplaces survey. The company, which advises commercial landlords and hospitals on how to minimize their electrical bills, was beaten out in the competition for Best Overall (Under 100 employees) by marketing agency Karo Group (staff of 48). Nevertheless, it’s living proof that even micro-enterprises can compete in the war for talent.

In addition to its well-rounded benefits, Solution 105 has all the advantages of a small workplace: a familial environment, face time with the boss, the ability to respond quickly to the problems that inevitably arise and little in the way of bureaucracy or office politics. When the company’s information technology leader had a baby, the company let him set up network access so he could work from home. Since then, two more employees have become new parents and it’s not unusual for them to bring their children to the office.

“I look at that and go, ‘What kind of environment would I have wanted when I had small kids?’” says president and CEO Chris Vilcsak, whose youngest is now 10. “I don’t look at what the big companies are doing. I just look at what our employees want.” The approach seems to be working; Solution 105 had zero turnover in 2008, and just one staff member left the year before.

The economic picture may have darkened in recent months, but Alberta’s unemployment rate remains near 4% (what used to be considered “full employment” in the 1980s and ’90s) and critical skill shortages persist in certain sectors. While it’s reasonable to assume that pay increases will come down from the range between 2% and 26% reported by Alberta’s Best Workplaces respondents for the past year, employers will be looking to maintain and improve their offerings to recruit and retain the high-calibre workers that will help see them through the lean times. In other words, the demand for top staff is undiminished; indeed, it could be heightened.

“You still want to be seen as an employer of choice,” confirms Phillip Wong, a director of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA) and a member of the judging panel for Alberta’s Best Workplaces 2009. (Wong, who serves as the manager of HR information systems at Epcor Utilities Inc. in his day job, did not participate in the judging of Epcor’s application.) The advent of social networking has greatly increased the ability of employees to talk behind employers’ backs, he notes. “Word does get around. You don’t want to have people practices that may be seen in a negative light.”

At the same time, human resources professionals see this as a time to upgrade the workforce. With more talent possibly coming on the market or dissatisfied with their existing employers, companies are in a position to hire new core team members and perhaps cull their marginal performers. This should ultimately increase productivity, decreasing the number of person-hours – that’s wages to you – devoted to each task.

What this year’s crop of finalists presents is a catalogue of best HR practices. Judging from the applicants, costly components like defined-benefit pension plans have become rare indeed. Pension plans and group RRSPs that are more than 50% sponsored by the employer are few and far between.

Similarly, even top employers have become stingy about their maternity benefits, with many simply offering the legislated minimum of time off and a job guarantee when the employee returns. Only in certain more highly trained sectors, notably the major accounting and business-services firms, is a 17-week salary top-up the norm.

Instead employers are adopting a range of lower-cost add-ons to their employment contracts. Health spending accounts – where the employee has a fixed dollar amount to spend on health benefits not covered by provincial health insurance – are making inroads against full drug coverage and extended care.

One of the most cost-effective benefits is simply flexibility, as long as it does not interfere with business continuity. Here the largest employers, which have the bench strength to substitute key talent, have the edge. Telus Corporation, for example, which was a finalist in three categories, allowed Edmonton-based senior project manager Nashir Karmali to take two leaves of absence in the past year to volunteer with aid projects in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

“My management and I both saw it as a growth opportunity in my personal and career development,” Karmali says in an email from Kabul, where he’s now serving a second, one-year stint as executive officer of Focus Afghanistan, a disaster-relief group. “I see taking time off to volunteer in a capacity-building role as an integral part of my career development.” Karmali and his wife, both devout Muslims born in Africa, had reached a decision several years ago that they didn’t want to wait until their retirement to start giving back to the needy citizens of the developing world. Fortunately for them, their employers made it relatively easy. In this way, even supposedly “soulless” large corporations can show they care about the fully rounded person each employee wants to be.

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