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A Worker’s World

How the job market has changed

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Finding a job in Calgary today, especially in the energy industry, is like finding a needle in a haystack – extremely difficult, though not entirely impossible. The multitude of candidates vying for the few available jobs means that to get hired, one must stand out from the crowd in new and creative ways. Flexibility, learnability and possession of the right qualifications are key. Even with these things, however, landing a job is not easy.

While Alberta’s situation – the direct result of a precipitous drop in oil prices and the primacy of the energy industry to the province’s economy – is unique, jobseekers nationwide face new, often bleak, realities. Times have changed, and the days of long-term employment with traditional pensions and benefits are, unfortunately, over. There are jobs in Canada, to be sure; it’s for those who know where they are and how to land them that things will work out well.

“If you’ve got the right background, education and degree, it’s very much an employee’s market [in Canada],” explains Bill Greenhalgh, CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). “There’s big demand. When you look at Ontario, people coming out of [university] with computer backgrounds are hired instantly.” Students graduating with ‘STEM’ degrees – in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics – are generally in a good position. “This is where the jobs are – in software, computers, technology – there’s big demand,” Greenhalgh says.

Despite the preponderance of technology-related jobs, Greenhalgh says three-quarters of students graduating from post-secondary institutions in Canada are doing so with degrees in the soft sciences – the arts and social sciences. They then struggle to find jobs.

The continuation of the shift away from manufacturing jobs has been offset somewhat by growth in other industries. “There’s been some [job] replacement through services, particularly in areas like tourism, culture, restaurants and the hospitality industry,” Greenhalgh says. Jobs in the trades, too, are plentiful. “There’s a huge shortage of people in the trades and there’s all kinds of apprenticeships available,” he says. “They have long-term security, and you don’t need a degree. You need skills.”

Within Alberta, it hardly needs to be said that it’s an employer’s market. “The talent pool right now is not only large, but there are also many highly-credentialed and highly-qualified people on the market right now,” explains Leah Fochuk, CHRP and consulting services manager with Salopek & Associates Ltd., a human resources consulting firm in Calgary. “Because of the vast talent pool, employers have their pick of the litter. They can afford to be choosy.”

With so much competition, Fochuk says applicants must be strategic in their job search: target and tighten up the resumé and cover letter, focus the resumé on results, update or create a LinkedIn profile, and leverage the network. “Start talking to people, go for coffee, let people know you are looking and what you are looking for,” she advises. “Candidates may have more of an ‘in’ if you know someone – personal referrals have always been a way to get your foot in the door.”

Mark Quesada, a petroleum engineer who has been out of work since June 2015, experienced first-hand Alberta’s employer market. “Basically all of the jobs are in the hidden job market, through word of mouth,” he says. “And even then, most of the jobs required very specific skill sets – almost as if they had a precise problem that needed to be fixed in the short term.”

While job opportunities in Alberta’s energy sector are rare, some do exist. “Some companies are strategically recruiting for select roles to attract some of these great professionals who have entered the job market,” explains Fochuk. “The budgets for 2017 have now come out and there is a budget for drilling. The budgets aren’t big, but there are budgets this year, whereas in 2016, there was no budget.”

The IT and technology sectors, and companies whose businesses are tied to the U.S. and international markets, are seeing some growth, while the non-profit sector, which has enjoyed recent provincial government funding, has seen some activity as well.

Given tighter budgets and a larger talent pool, recruitment too has become more strategic, with companies looking for employees with long-term potential. “While organizations may have higher confidence that they can find great talent today, being able to retain this talent when the market turns around is very important,” Fochuk explains. “So companies are focusing on ensuring the candidate is truly interested in working with the organization, is aligned with their values and is excited about the opportunity with the organization.” Strong employment track records and specialized certifications and training can also give applicants an edge.

Worker perceptions about (current and prospective) employment have also changed. “Whereas the baby boomers might have had six jobs in their career, the next generation had six jobs in a couple of years and the current generation has six jobs at once,” says Greenhalgh. “They’re doing all kinds of different things, it’s like a portfolio career.”

Employees also desire greater flexibility in their jobs – from workplace and hours to benefits packages – as well as learning and development opportunities at work. Positive corporate cultures and industries with stability (i.e. outside of the oil and gas industry) are also attractive.

Expectations about salaries and benefits have shifted too. For those not in the public service, the concept of a pension with guaranteed income has just about vanished, and can typically be approximated only through the use of RRSPs, CPP or personal savings. Guaranteed benefit plans have replaced guaranteed contribution ones, placing greater responsibility for the future on employees’ shoulders.

The time at which those employees take their pensions – at retirement – has also changed. Whereas people used to retired at 65, many today simply don’t, either because they aren’t obliged to, because they have to keep working to maintain their standard of living, or because they simply want to work. “It’s a whole demographic shift, where you have four, maybe five generations in the workplace,” Greenhalgh marvels.

Nationwide, salaries are not increasing by much; Greenhalgh estimates they’ve gone up by about two to two-and-a-half per cent year-over-year, just enough to keep up with inflation.

Prior to the downturn, Calgary salaries outpaced the Canadian average, and have since had an approximate 10 per cent correction, putting them on par with Toronto and probably still higher than in Vancouver, according to Fochuk. “We are also seeing salary freezes, and fewer companies offering cost-of-living raises,” she adds.

Still looking for ways to save costs, many Alberta companies are making cuts and changes to their benefit plans, cutting their short-term disability benefits and drug coverages by lowering their limit maximums. Many have tiered their plans into classes based on years of service, so that newer employees have reduced plans.

“Companies are also trending towards providing basic coverage for employees but then having a large health spending account (HSA),” Fochuk explains. These allow companies to better control costs, so when they need to cut back they can simply reduce the amount provided to the HSA rather than redesign the entire plan. “Employees like the flexibility of an HSA as it gives them more control over how they spend their benefit dollars,” Fochuk adds.

For those in the job market, in Calgary and across Canada, understanding the market itself is integral to thriving in it. What was normal 20, 10, even two years ago, is no longer the case. Today’s worker must be savvy, ambitious and unafraid to qualify her or himself for the jobs that are available. The reward of employment is well worth it.

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