How to attract talent to tricky markets

How Growth 500 winners have managed to incentivize high-performing recruits to go where few workers have gone before

 

(Illustrations by Emily Chu)

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

When career car dealer Brad Gregorini took over a mom-and-pop security firm in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. five years ago, he had two hopes: One was to build a versatile, high-tech growth venture. The other was to provide plenty of skilled jobs in the interest of discouraging local youth from leaving town to find meaningful work.

Today, NORPRO Company (2019 Growth 500: No. 136) offers a wide range of security services, from uniformed guards to mobile-response units, and even a drug-detecting canine unit—and boasts a staff of 200. The Sault, meanwhile, has also prospered, with unemployment hitting a 20-year low this spring.

With NORPRO set to double its sales revenues this year, Gregorini says that his greatest challenge now isn’t so much convincing workers not to leave, but bringing them in from other cities. “Recruiting is our biggest pain point, bar none.” Whether they’re in security, software or social media, Canada’s fastest-growing companies have one thing in common: an endless need to attract talent, which becomes all the more difficult outside major urban centres, and sometimes even in them. Here’s how the Growth 500 are building their talent base in tough-to-staff markets.

FILL YOUR OWN POOL

At NORPRO, Gregorini is in a double bind: not only is talent scarce, but competition is growing. Security firms, he says, are often seen as entry-level employers, a stepping stone for young people hoping to make their careers with the police, Corrections or Canada Border Services Agency. Agencies are also facing record numbers of retiring baby boomers, and they’re coping by hiring more people right out of college. So he fought back this year by hiring NORPRO’s first full-time recruiter. “We’re now in continuous hire mode,” he says.

The recruiter’s job is essentially a marketing position—to spread the word about NORPRO’s job openings and then sell candidates on the benefits of working for the company or moving to the Sault—a border city surrounded by woods, rivers, islands and lakes. With recent openings for a CFO, a COO and inside and outside salespeople, NORPRO is making a concerted effort to lure senior talent from southern Ontario. If the lifestyle doesn’t win them over, Gregorini is willing to up the ante: He has just begun offering senior candidates every second Friday off—above and beyond their usual holidays.

With its recent expansion and acquisition of related firms, NORPRO now offers capable candidates the chance to move into such specialties as patrol, investigations, armoured-car services, canine unit or such technical areas as communications, cabling, alarms and data management.“It’s unbelievable, professional training—and it’s all transferable,” says Gregorini.

FIND YOUR TRIBE

Culture fit is key to Pela (2019 Growth 500: No. 20), a Kelowna, B.C. producer of biodegradable phone cases. Founded in Saskatoon by environmental consultant Jeremy Lang, the company’s marquee product is a compostable alternative to plastic, made with plant-based biopolymers and flax straw (he calls it “flaxstic”). An avid skier and mountain biker, CEO Matt Bertulli moved Pela to Kelowna (population: 132,000), hoping he could convince A-list talent—not just the Okanagan’s nature-loving populace—to settle there, too.

“It turned out to be easier than I thought,” he says. Bertulli posted on LinkedIn and indeed.com (“No secret sauce there”) and found skilled professionals in Vancouver and Calgary who were itching to escape the city, which makes an obvious case for targeting workers who are alike in lifestyle.

Bertulli’s challenge now is hiring people who are serious about Pela’s mission. Aside from usual assessments of skill and experience, Pela’s hiring process now screens for humility, which Bertulli considers a precondition for people focused on purpose. (A word of advice: If you identify your weakness as “working too hard” or “caring too much,” you’re done.) “Every question is designed to filter out people with ego,” Bertulli says.

INVEST IN RECRUITING

And then there’s the challenge awaiting Burlington, Ont.-based Prodigy (2019 Growth 500: No. 3). The company’s product, a Pokémon-like computer game used to teach math in elementary schools, is growing so fast Prodigy has to hire 300 new people over the next year—doubling its head count. But, as high-tech hubs go, Burlington doesn’t exactly compare to Toronto, so Prodigy opened a satellite office in downtown TO last year. And to prepare for its hiring push, it has built an HR team of more than two dozen people, eight of whom focus solely on recruiting—and two on managing job interviews. “Once we had a backlog of more than 10 roles, we knew we had to take control of the process,” says co-CEO Rohan Mahimker.

Early on, Mahimker and his co-founder, Alexander Peters, did the recruiting, posting on job sites and scrolling through LinkedIn. As Prodigy grew, they handed that work to department managers. But, notes Mahimker, “None of them were particularly good at it.” Outside agencies weren’t much better, as they struggled to understand the technical specs of each position and tended to charge high fees.

Now, their eight-person recruitment team collaborates closely with the hiring managers of each department to work out the technical standards required for each job. Then come a battery of phone and in-person interviews to confirm technical and cultural fit, some of which last up to four hours. Still, if Prodigy can teach 10-year-olds to love math, sourcing employees—even outside of Toronto—should be a snap. It appears to be paying off: Mahimker says Prodigy’s employee-engagement levels are higher than most “best workplace” companies—a claim that’s bolstered by its enviable 4.5-out-of-5 ranking on Glassdoor.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Across the GTA at MaRS, the de facto hub of Toronto’s tech community, you wouldn’t expect Ecopia (2019 Growth 500: No. 22) to have trouble finding talent. But the company’s use of high-level artificial intelligence and big data to turn aerial photos into detailed vector maps (which use equations to create images that don’t pixelate at high zoom) requires the very best of computer scientists—not all of whom call Hogtown home.

President Jon Lipinski says Ecopia focuses its searches on Canada’s top three computer-science schools: the University of Toronto, Waterloo and UBC. “We build our on-campus presence with career fairs and hackathons. And we ask our people to refer their friends.”

So, what do Canada’s brainiest computer-science grads want? Challenging work and opportunities to grow, says Lipinski. He says Ecopia competes with bigger employers by emphasizing its strengths: cutting-edge work in AI that solves real-world problems. Clients use Ecopia’s maps to distribute vaccines in Africa, expand broadband services and help communities combat flooding. Given the global talent shortage, Ecopia also hires from the U.S. and Asia, tapping government programs that fast-track visa applications for qualifying workers. To get the word out, Ecopia works with campus employment offices at top technical schools around the world.

Ecopia also makes a virtue of its size. “We’re a small, close-knit team that works hard together and celebrates successes together,” says Lipinski. Above all, “there’s a lot of room for upward mobility here.” With growth of more than 10% a year, new hires could be leading a team very quickly. Luckily, Lipinski and co. are on the lookout for youthful ambition.

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