Tips from Ottawa business leaders on how to navigate the skilled labour shortage
By Allison Williams
There’s no doubt that the results of the 2016 Ottawa Business Growth Survey reveal optimism about Ottawa’s future. More than two thirds of respondents described the city’s business climate as stable or improving, and nearly half expect to see an increase in their industry’s market sector over the next six months.
But the survey—a joint initiative by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and Welch LLP—also quantifies one of the largest challenges facing Ottawa’s business community.
The skilled labour shortage was singled out as the largest barrier to doing business in the city, with 47 percent of respondents identifying access to a skilled workforce as the most important issue they’ll encounter in the next five years. Ottawa business leaders offer their insights on how to manage today’s labour needs.
Tip 1: Co-op programs are a solution for entry-level hiring, but you may need to compete for Ottawa’s experienced talent.
Anne Van Delst, partner at Westboro-based accounting firm Ginsberg Gluzman Fage & Levitz, LLP (GGFL), says the challenges depend on the degree of work experience they’re looking for. Despite the low availability of talent overall, GGFL enjoys a steady supply of qualified entry-level candidates. According to Van Delst, this success can be attributed to the co-operative education programs at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa that feed the pipeline for the firm’s junior roles.
“The accounting co-op system works like a well-oiled machine,” she says. “There is almost a seamless relationship from school to practice experience and a career.” At GGFL, a number of partners began their careers through co-operative education programs.
Even with an impressive pool of new graduates, Van Delst says that challenges persist in sourcing qualified candidates for more senior positions—a trend she believes is driven primarily by local competition.
“There is a competitive market for senior accounting expertise, with local firms all vying for the best,” she says.
This increases pressure on local firms to ramp up their recruiting efforts. “It takes significant time and resources to find the right individuals to fill some of the more specialized positions.”
Tip 2: Consider looking more closely at skilled applicants from diverse local talent pools.
Rob Henderson is president and CEO of biotechnology recruiting firm BioTalent Canada. He attributes the shortage of Ottawa-based biotechnology talent in part to the city’s geography. “[Ottawa] sits right between … two major Canadian biotechnology hubs, namely Toronto and Montreal.” This factor, he says, places Ottawa in direct competition with its neighbours.
According to Henderson, sourcing more skilled applicants means delving more deeply into the underserved talent pools already resident in the city.
“We look for competitively advantageous labour markets, specifically the labour markets that other people aren’t going after, and that have the richest and most available talent.” In particular, Henderson cites youth, new Canadians, women and persons with disabilities as demographics that are typically not employed by the bioeconomy.
To better engage these populations, BioTalent works hard to position companies in the bioeconomy as employers of choice for people in these demographic groups. This involves instituting programs such as wage subsidies and mentorship programs that have specific appeal to these audiences.
According to Henderson, the goal is simple: “We try to make it easy for employers to go after these labour markets.”
Tip 3: Until the graduate pipeline matures, look at drawing talent from outside the city.
Scott Bradley, vice-president corporate affairs for Huawei Canada, agrees that maintaining a stream of experienced local talent starts with a robust graduate pipeline. In Bradley’s view, this has more to do with meeting a future need than a current one. He notes that graduates from local universities will be an essential element in sustaining areas of the labour market that are currently filled by a workforce borne out of former technology giants like Nortel.
“Ottawa’s existing pool of talent drives investment in the region,” says Bradley. “[Huawei] came to Ottawa because there’s tremendous talent here … the challenge is how we maintain leadership 10 or 15 or 20 years down the road.”
From Bradley’s perspective, the current university system requires significant development to meet the future needs of the Ottawa business community. The key, he believes, is to attract top students from around the world to Carleton University and the University of Ottawa by investing in engineering education, and partnering with government and industry to produce regional centres of excellence.
Until these centres mature, Bradley cautions that firms may look beyond Ottawa to secure a future stream of talented graduates. He goes on to say, “We’ve built up a strong team in Ottawa, but if we want to continue to expand and grow, we must look at other tech hubs.”
Tip 4: Promote Ottawa as an attractive place to live and work.
Goldy Hyder, president and CEO at Ottawa-based public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says his company continues to attract qualified applicants for new positions. Nevertheless, Hyder believes the city’s strong government affiliation may represent a roadblock for other industries’ recruiting efforts.
“Ottawa is very government-focused,” observes Hyder, “which does not lend itself to attracting employees in different markets such as technology.”
To further Ottawa’s reputation as a thriving business community, Hyder says that business and government have an important role in delivering the message that Ottawa also has a vibrant private sector economy.
“Business and government need to continue to work together to promote Ottawa as a desired destination for people to move here, whether from other parts of Canada or as new immigrants from abroad.”
In this regard, Van Delst observes that Ottawa’s “growing urban centre and expanding technology companies are working to change the city’s image.” She suggests better communicating everything that the city already has to offer. “Ottawa is a great place to live, with lively events and friendly neighbourhoods.”
With many strategies at play to address the skilled labour issue, the business community is keen to see the results from the next Ottawa Business Growth survey, which will be launched in 2017.
Allison Williams studied life sciences at Queen’s University, where she served as president of the undergraduate student government.
The Real Cost of Recruitment
In the midst of a skilled labour shortage, the search for an ideal candidate can prove costly. Soley Soucie, director of community relations for the Human Resources Professionals Association in Ottawa, and the eastern region division director for Hays Canada, says the impact on local businesses can be wide-ranging.
According to Soucie, the most noticeable result is a lengthened recruitment cycle. “Employers in Ottawa tell us it is taking them up to six months to fill hard-to-find roles, compared with less than two months for less skill-short areas,” she says, adding that this diverts “a lot more time and resources [towards] finding candidates.”
Beyond standard costs associated with recruitment, Soucie also draws attention to one cost that is often overlooked: the cost of making the wrong hire.
“When [your] candidate falls short, it can be tempting to hire someone even if you know they’re not quite right for the position.”
Citing a recent report published by Hays Canada, Soucie breaks down the scope of the problem: 80 percent of employers say hiring the wrong fit has a monetary impact of more than $10,000, and 30 percent say the cost is more than $50,000.
Despite the burdensome cost, however, more than half of employers report hiring a candidate knowing they were not well suited for the job. “There’s always an element of weighing [whether it is] better to just fill a role or to leave it empty and wait for the best possible person,” she says.
To combat the impact of rising recruitment costs and timelines, Soucie says many firms are moving online. Digital recruitment not only keeps the price tag down, but it also appeals to a shift in what candidates are seeking from prospective employers.
“Candidates want to pick an employer that has an online presence, so they have a feeling about what they’ll be like to work for.”
She also recommends that firms look beyond salaries when attempting to draw candidates, competing instead on factors such as vacation time, opportunities for career progression, and work environment.
“When only one company can offer top dollar, those are the differentiators that will help you attract and retain the best employees.”