The Recruiting Push to Small Cities

Interior BC jobs shortage | BCBusiness

Recruiters outside Metro Vancouver are getting creative in their pursuit of new employees, trying to convince candidates that the move into a smaller market will boost–and not stunt–their careers

Retention may be the name of the game in Metro Vancouver, but elsewhere in the province it’s all about recruitment. In smaller cities like Kelowna and Prince George, jobs sit open for months, forcing businesses to take their search across the country and around the world. It takes a lot more than competitive salaries to attract the talent to these smaller centres.

In Kelowna, recruitment frustrations are hardest felt in the tech sector. According to the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, the region has seen tech industry jobs increase eight per cent since 2008. That hasn’t come without growing pains. Attracting tech talent means convincing young professionals that a move to Kelowna won’t stunt their careers. Compared to markets where competition is robust, and finding a new challenge is as easy as walking into the startup next door, Kelowna may seem to offer limited opportunities.

It was certainly the case when Club Penguin was the only major video-game developer in Kelowna. However, since it was bought by Disney Interactive Worlds in 2007, and thanks also to the efforts of Accelerate Okanagan, several indie game developers have come on the scene, including Hyper Hippo Productions Ltd., Lemonade Gamelabs Ltd. and Mathtoons Media. The growing sector also attracted a satellite office of Vancouver animation company Bardel Entertainment Inc.

Despite the growth, convincing talent to relocate is still a tough sell. Consider Sascha Williams, for example, now a studio head for Disney Interactive based in Kelowna. When he first moved to Kelowna in December 2011, it was only because he viewed it as an interim posting while he was waiting for the paperwork to clear for a job he’d accepted at Disney in Los Angeles. It was also a part-time move; he continued to fly back to Vancouver on weekends to be with his family. Six months later, he took on the role of studio head of Disney Interactive Worlds in Kelowna, and he moved his family to settle in for good.

“If I had been recruited to be the studio head out of Vancouver, would I have considered that role, right off the bat?” he muses. “It definitely would have been a much more difficult role for me to take the leap of faith on. I really didn’t know a lot about Kelowna and for me it seemed like a very small town and kind of in the middle of nowhere.” He understands the hesitation young people have about leaving a strong gaming market like Vancouver, where opportunities may seem more likely. The city-centric bias is something he is keenly aware of now, as he works to attract top talent to the burgeoning Kelowna market.

In Prince George, as elsewhere outside of the Lower Mainland’s urban centres, skilled tradespeople continue to be in critically short supply. Wolftek Industries Inc. is typical of local businesses that support the primary resource sector; it designs and fabricates equipment for the rail, mining and oil industries. “We are in constant need of competent, skilled tradespeople,” says the company’s manufacturing manager, Gord Gallop. Despite multiple regional trade schools producing as many students as they can, the company still finds itself having to train local people on the job. Gallop says that’s a significant onus on a company that is trying to grow.
Heather Oland, CEO of Initiatives Prince George, stresses however, that job vacancies in the region are not all directly related to the resource sector. “Forestry, mining, oil and gas, transportation, construction, logistics—those are the enabling sectors, but with the kind of growth and economic activity that we are seeing, there are opportunities in health services, education services, professional services like accountants and lawyers, and hospitality.”

One of the biggest obstacles faced by recruiters outside the Lower Mainland is the fear of career instability in smaller centres. Andrew Ramlo, executive director of Urban Futures, a non-profit research institute and consulting firm in Vancouver, suggests that fear may have some basis in fact. He points to numbers showing a dichotomy of opportunity between the city and the regions. While the statistics indicate that B.C. has gained back all the jobs that were lost in the recession of 2008-2009, that recovery has not been evenly distributed throughout the province. “All of that growth was in the Lower Mainland,” Ramlo notes. And while that’s good news for job seekers in Metro Vancouver, he adds, it’s also part of the reason smaller cities will continue to feel the pinch when jobs do return, since a lot of the talent pool will have moved on in search of employment, potentially to the Lower Mainland or Alberta.

Over the past two years B.C. has seen a net migration loss every quarter. People are leaving the province, not just for Alberta but for jobs in Ontario and Quebec. John Winter, president and CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, believes reversing the outflow of workers will require convincing people to move outside the Lower Mainland instead of out of the province, and he sees that shift happening soon. Initiatives Prince George, the city’s economic development corporation, estimates that city will have 10,000 jobs begging to be filled within the next five years. Winter believes these and other opportunities will be too tempting to be overlooked.

Ensuring that the jobs aren’t the only appealing part of the proposition is the responsibility of organizations like Initiatives Prince George and the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission. But for these organizations, Vancouver is far down the list of recruiting destinations. Instead, they direct most of their efforts out of province and out of country. As Robert Fine, director of economic development for the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, puts it, “Folks that are coming from abroad do their research and they are starting at a very different point.”

These organizations attend multiple international job fairs each year, armed with lists of open positions and job descriptions. They facilitate getting resumés to the companies in need and, most importantly, paint the best possible picture of life in their respective communities. Prospective immigrants will hear about the lakeside, wine-country lifestyle of the Okanagan or the four-season, rugged outdoors lifestyle available in Prince George.

Given the economic climate in Europe, the cost of living in Canada is often the clincher, Fine explains. “If you live within an hour commute time of London, [England], $600,000 gets you a very small room, basically no backyard, no garage, no amenities. So we say you could trade this for a nice 2,400-square-foot house with three bedrooms and a two-car garage and a backyard and access to a lake and wineries. So we think we have an interesting sell.”

Fine is not the only one playing the real-estate card. “We have iPads that are loaded with actual real-estate listings,” reports Initiatives Prince George’s Oland, “with actual rental housing accommodations so that they can see the costs for themselves.” It’s the draw that proves effective on the rare occasion that he recruits in Vancouver. Oland recalls meeting two young men at a job fair: “I’d say they were in their early 20s. They were looking for labourer-type jobs and when I told them that they could have a two-bedroom apartment for $750 that was 20 minutes from Tabor Mountain where a ski pass was going to cost them $299 for the season, they were both on the bus.”
In addition to travelling far and wide to attract new workers to their area, recruiters also aim to woo local graduates. Oland says that retention rates from Prince George’s UNBC are “huge” and that the draw is easy to understand. “People graduate from the University of Northern B.C. and on the day they graduate, they’re using their degree and they are buying a house.”

The tech industry in Kelowna is finding equal success with UBC’s Okanagan campus. Students have the opportunity to do a co-op at Disney Interactive Worlds and many of them are hired upon graduation.

The Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission also targets students, hosting young professionals networking events with the hope of overcoming the region’s image as a community for older people. (Fine gleefully reports that Kelowna is now the third-oldest community in B.C., demographically; it used to be No. 1.) The organization also offers international students a class entitled “Canadian Experience,” and access to one of only two foreign skilled worker coordinators in Canada. The hope is that these efforts will make staying put an attractive option for foreign students. “There are about 5,200 students at UBC Okanagan who don’t come from the Okanagan. So that’s a fairly significant population push of young people into this region,” notes Fine.

The economic development agencies can tout the benefits of their city, and ease the transition from student to worker; but, it ultimately comes down to employers being able to deliver opportunities that are too tempting to turn down. That starts with the compensation. Prince George’s Wolftek Industries, for example, is currently paying skilled tradespeople higher rates than they’d get in Vancouver. In fact, Wolftek manager Gord Gallop says the company’s wages are comparable to Fort McMurray: in the $36 to $40 an hour range, which, he is quick to point out, goes a lot further in Prince George. If that’s not enough, he says the company may scratch the standard 90-day waiting period and start the new hire’s benefits immediately.

Disney Interactive Worlds also has competitive salaries and benefits (including a Silver Parks Pass good for entry to most Disney theme parks). In addition, the company has a unique approach to ensuring the whole family can get behind the move to Kelowna. “Our HR team actually does help make connections for spouses in town,” says Williams. “That’s something I’ve never seen in any other company that I’ve worked in or any other studio that brought people in from other cities.”

The collective effort is starting to pay off. Oland reports that 1,000 jobs were filled through 2013, and confidently adds, “We are attracting new people to our community.” Kelowna’s reputation as a tech centre is gaining steam, making the idea of relocating less threatening to a budding career.

Nevertheless, there’s no end in sight to the recruiting challenges of the Interior region. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce’s John Winter points out, “We’ve got all this opportunity coming on stream: 89 billion—with a ‘b’—dollars’ worth of projects, not including the pipeline, that are close to reality, with no prospect to be able to find people to work.”

When labour is a hot commodity, businesses will do what it takes to get the workers they need, and in the Kelowna tech sector, that often means Disney might bring in new talent, only to see them lured away by local startups. However, Disney’s Sascha Williams is loath to use the term “poach.” In fact, he’s excited to see new companies and projects in the region. “A healthy growing tech community is only good for us,” he explains. “If you help create a really healthy community, you just have to be very good at being a great place to work.”

Recruitment and retention are permanent agenda items at Wolftek’s management meetings. “It’s an employee’s market at the moment, that’s for sure,” Gallop confirms. Looking ahead and considering the oncoming personnel demands from the mines, he speculates that “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” He admits that he doesn’t know what more his company can do. “Short of buying them their house, I’m not sure.”