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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

By the same token, one of the top-producing information technology recruiters at Sapphire Technologies Canada (formerly CNC Global, now a division of Dutch staffing giant Randstad) divides his time in 60-day increments between Calgary and his childhood home of Big Pond, N.S., says the company’s southern Alberta director, Dave Quinn. “That arrangement has worked well for us,” Quinn says. “We offer lots of flexibility. If you want to work out at two in the afternoon and work a little later into the evening, that’s fine.”

Sapphire, a finalist in the Best Overall (Under 100 employees) category, holds the distinction of giving its employees average pay raises of 26% in 2008, the highest rate of increase in our survey. A lot of that has to do with the commission structure for IT recruiters, allows Quinn. Typically they start at a modest rate of pay but boost their earnings dramatically the longer they stick with it. “People are going to have to work harder to see the same kind of increases” in 2009, he opines. But for salespeople willing to stick it out and build up a base of clients, “the long-term earning potential is excellent.” And despite the change in the economy, unemployment in the IT sector, especially in Calgary, is negligible – between 1% and 1.5%, Quinn says – which means there will still be plenty of business for firms like his.

The responses to our survey turned up some surprisingly simple things companies can do to make their workplaces more attractive to certain kinds of workers. Karo was just one of the applicants this year that has purchased a Smart Car for staff use that enables workers who commute by bicycle or public transit to easily attend appointments and meetings around town.

Some things an employer can do to demonstrate its commitment to one or another of the aspects of a good workplace are literally priceless. The 1,500 employees of Devon Canada Corporation, finalist in the Best Workplace for Volunteerism and Community Involvement, can hardly doubt the company’s endorsement of their contributions in time and money to the United Way of Calgary and Area; not only does the company match their contributions one-for one and provide paid time off to volunteer, but last year president Chris Seasons served as co-chair of the United Way’s $50-million campaign. Other senior executives are similarly active in the Alzheimer Society, the Alberta Water Council and amateur sports bodies.

Creating an appealing workplace cannot be achieved in isolation, however. It’s part and parcel of the company’s mission and the way it distinguishes itself from its competitors for both employees and customers. As Brad Klak, president of Best Overall (101-750 employees) winner Agriculture Financial Services Corporation, puts it, “You don’t put culture up in slogans or on signs. You build culture every day. You build it through consistency. You build it through communication and through a lot of the fun things you can do in the workplace. You need to be able to build that trust in an organization that management gets it.”

The Landmark Group of Builders, an Edmonton-based home builder and finalist in the Best Workplace for the Environmentally Conscious category, goes beyond the common workplace energy-saving and recycling initiatives to bring environmental thinking to its end product. The company aims to build all of its homes to a net-zero standard (that is, they will produce as much energy as they consume) by 2015. Net-zero homes are being built now as pilot projects, notes the company’s Built Green manager, Dave Turnbull, but nobody has yet attempted to do it on a commercial scale in this marketplace.

“If somebody wants to give me an extra $100,000, brother, I can build you a net- zero home right now,” he says. “What we want to do is say, ‘You know what? If XYZ Builder is offering you a house, we’re going to offer you the same house, the same size, but it’s going to be a net-zero home, for the same money.’”

To the skeptics who say it’s easier to promise such a standard than to achieve it, Turnbull notes how Landmark has been steadily improving its homes’ energy efficiency and building envelope over the past five years. It is working with solar and geothermal suppliers to see how the price of their equipment can be brought down through high-volume contracts. The green ethic now pervades the company, such that people in the accounting department recently came up with sources of biodegradable cutlery for company functions.

Regardless of the current economic uncertainty, the long-term trend is clear, HRIA director Wong says. “As it relates to people programs, the bar has been raised.” Ten years ago, large employers did not offer junior employees many options in the way of time off to deal with the rest of their lives, for example. Today, even early in their careers, employees can take an hour or a day or even a year off for any number of reasons.

Likewise, employers have come to recognize demographic diversity. Employees at different stages in their lives get different things out of coming to work. And employers are responding. “You can’t just have one program for all,” Wong says. “When I first entered human resources more than 20 years ago, the practices were pretty black and white. It was a rules-based system as opposed to [one that considers] what’s good for the employee and good for the company.”

Nowadays, he continues, “employers are recognizing that each of these demographic groups has different needs and they’re certainly much more in tune with how to meet those needs.”

Alexander Hamilton, clients and markets senior manager for Best Overall (Over 750 employees) winner Deloitte & Touche LLP, echoes that new willingness to accommodate individual requests: “I think because our firm is both people- and business-driven, if you can make a business case for anything that will improve you professionally, personally, and enhance the business, you’re pushing on an open door.”

Had the boom continued, employers likely would have added still more bells and whistles to their offerings. Given the change in the economy, small employers feeling the heat to their margins may now cut back, but most will keep things as they are, Wong predicts. Large enterprises especially have to consider the message they are sending out if they claw back benefits or personal time off. Count on employers scaling back those double-digit pay increases in the coming year, but the newfound flexibility and choice of options is here to stay.

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