Troubled waters in the talent pool

Troubled waters in the talent pool

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Emily Bednarz | Published: July 2, 2024

Canada’s labour market experienced unprecedented shifts in recent years, and Nova Scotia was no exception. To learn more about how our labour market has changed and what the future looks like for employers trying to attract top talent, we consulted some of the leading recruitment firms in Halifax.

Recruitment is a familiar issue in Nova Scotia. “We have always faced challenges related to labour shortages in certain industries, but things have fluctuated dramatically in the last five years,” says Erica MacDonald, Partner at Summit Search Group. “For example, tech and insurance were busy industries for us during the COVID-19 pandemic, but tech layoffs escalated dramatically in the first quarter of 2023.”

The pandemic years also saw increased turnover rates and changing employee expectations, explains Andrea Forbes-Hurley, Managing Partner at KBRS. “Recruitment demand was intense between 2021 and 2022,” she says. “While some of that intensity has dissipated due to economic fluctuations, the underlying challenges and demographic shifts that have been driving labour market challenges for years have not disappeared.”

Although Nova Scotia has experienced historic levels of population growth, employers must still contend with the need for skilled labour and an aging workforce. “While the job vacancy rate may not be as high as it was a few years ago, employers are still challenged to find people with the talent and skills they need,” says Katherine Risley, Managing Partner at KBRS. “This is further complicated by the province’s aging workforce, with only seven new entrants for every ten retirees.”

Investing in the local student population is one way to counterbalance our aging workforce. There were nearly 37,000 post-secondary students in Halifax last year, according to the 2023 Halifax Index, and many of the local colleges and universities operate work-integrated learning programs. Dalhousie University alone supported over 2,800 work terms in the past academic year, says Robert Wooden, Director of Management Career Services at Dalhousie University.

Katherine Risley (left) and Andrea Forbes-Hurley (right) are Managing Partners at KBRS. KBRS was established in 1975 as an executive search and HR consulting firm. Meridia Recruitment Solutions, a KBRS company, was later created to address clients’ need for a streamlined and expedited recruitment process. Together, KBRS and Meridia represent a team of more than 70 professionals with offices in Toronto, Halifax, St. John’s, and Moncton.

Recruitment challenges

MacDonald points to the latest Economic Scan from Service Canada to shed further light on the province’s unique labour market challenges. Last year, the unemployment rate in Nova Scotia was 6.3%—the lowest point since 1970. “Since we have stronger growth in employment than in the labour force, employers require additional assistance to make the right hire,” adds MacDonald.

When coupled with low unemployment rates, our growing and diversifying talent pool has created a more competitive recruitment space for employers. “We continue to see a steady and growing need for recruitment support as organizations continue to face a tight labour market,” says Forbes-Hurley.

Our continuing population growth has triggered new market pressures in the construction and healthcare industries. “In Canada, 20% of construction workers plan to retire in the next decade,” says Risley. “At the same time, employers in the field are battling record high vacancy rates with a current shortage of over 80,000 workers across the country.”

Specialized training and accreditations are key factors affecting current shortages. “Employers within the healthcare sector struggle to recruit for highly specialized clinical roles, as do organizations requiring specialized engineering and construction expertise, which are so urgently needed to support housing expansion for our growing population,” says Forbes-Hurley.

MacDonald agrees, adding that seniority makes a significant impact. “The more specialized and senior the role, the more difficult the position is to recruit for,” she says. “If we are looking for someone who is C-suite or has ten years of experience in a specific technical product or service, they are going to be much more difficult to find. And often, with seniority comes specificity.”

Although Nova Scotia’s population is growing, national and international recruitment is still challenging. “Attracting talent from outside the region has become more difficult in recent years,” says MacDonald. “The rising cost of living in Atlantic Canada has become a major issue as well as our taxation rate and current business climate.”

While employers are struggling to recruit, young workers are also struggling to find meaningful employment opportunities. “We have noticed that there is a higher than ever demand for co-op positions in HRM,” says Wooden. “This is for a few reasons, including an increased number of programs offering co-op, more students participating in co-op, and less ability for some students to relocate for co-op positions due to housing costs and availability.”

Changes in industry and economy also seem to be impacting the amount of employers available to offer co-op positions. “Due to the uncertainty of the economy, we are seeing a decrease in the volume of co-op job opportunities—not only in HRM but also nationally—when compared to the same time frame a year ago,” says Wooden. “The lack of opportunities in the technology sector is very apparent, especially given the volume of layoffs in 2023 and 2024.”

Left: Erica MacDonald is Partner at Summit Search Group, which was founded in 1995. Right: Dalhousie University supported over 2,800 work terms in the past academic year, says Robert Wooden, Director of Management Career Services at Dalhousie University..

Tips for employers

Holly Bond is President of Facet, a division of Royer Thompson. “The recruitment industry has changed over the years in so many fantastic ways,” says Bond. “There’s a new emphasis on sustainability; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and skills, experience, and fit over education.”

Bond appreciates when employers are willing to weigh a candidate’s experience and abilities alongside their education. “Many roles we see posted require an MBA, for example, and they may be missing the opportunity to meet a candidate with incredible experience that would be perfect for the role,” says Bond. “Employers are more willing to reflect and discuss the skills and experience required for a role and hire people who share the same values. This only helps to broaden the talent pool, resulting in more diverse and innovative companies.”

Besides adopting a more open approach when evaluating candidates, employers also need to rethink how they promote positions. “Increasingly, employers are struggling to find candidates through more passive recruitment strategies,” says Risley. “It’s hard to generate a good pipeline of candidates by simply posting an ad. A more proactive, candidate-centric approach is needed to identify prospective candidates and maintain relationships with them for future roles.”

Engagement also needs to be tailored to individual candidates. “Employers need to put themselves in the candidate’s shoes and get curious about what really matters to them,” says Risley. “Then, they need to weave this understanding into their outreach strategy and recruitment process. People want personalized treatment, and this may mean tweaking how you engage candidates to better address their individual interests and preferences.”

A personalized approach also requires thinking through a long-term plan for a new employee. “Better establishment of thoughtful career paths for positions at all levels is critical,” says Forbes-Hurley. “Understanding how they will develop and progress through your organization is even more important to younger generations and seeing that path will attract highly motivated candidates.”

The same goes when recruiting new graduates or for co-op positions. “More than ever, students are interested in hearing firsthand experiences from prior co-op students at an organization to assist both during the recruitment process and the decision-making process once a job offer is received,” says Wooden.

When it comes to co-op positions, employers should connect with local colleges and universities to improve their recruitment strategy. “Members of the Dalhousie Management Career Services team are experts at advising our employer partners on strategies to elevate their employer brand within our student population,” says Wooden. “They can take advantage of a variety of free and paid methods, like event and society sponsorship, campus brand ambassadors, social media engagement strategies, guest speakers, info sessions, and office tours.”

For hiring outside of co-op, employers can turn to recruiting firms to understand and reach their best candidates. “Employee engagement is becoming increasingly important,” says MacDonald. “Your strategies should ensure that you are networking and advertising in the right places and that your offering is competitive in terms of compensation. People are looking for more than just pay—they want work-life balance and a job they enjoy.”

Holly Bond is President of Facet, a division of Royer Thompson. She and her team (pictured right) focus on recruiting for mid-level management roles.

Looking ahead

Given our aging population, employers should consider how to retain and develop existing staff members. “A lot of the clients we work with are interested in taking a bigger picture look at their people strategy,” says Risley. “This goes beyond succession planning to also include competency planning and how organizations can increase competencies of current employees at all levels to meet the business challenges of tomorrow.”

MacDonald adds that broad, systemic change is needed to address labour shortages in the province. “We have an aging population, an outmigration of young people, and a mismatch between the skills of job seekers and the needs of employers,” she says. “Our government needs to work harder at remedying some of our local challenges. Encouraging collaboration between government, businesses, educational institutions, and community organizations is essential for developing effective strategies to address labour issues in Nova Scotia. Strategies such as workforce inclusivity, attracting and retaining talent, and investing in infrastructure will become increasingly important.”

Extra care is also needed when fostering a sense of belonging for workers from outside Nova Scotia. “Immigration is the primary driver of our population growth, and I think Nova Scotian employers need to be thoughtful about how they attract, support, and engage newcomers,” says Forbes-Hurley. “Engaging newcomers effectively in Nova Scotia’s workforce will be critical to addressing talent shortages. Organizations need to be thoughtful and strategic in their approach.”

In the meantime, turning to the student population and local co-op programs offers many benefits to employers. “By hiring co-op students, employers are effectively pre-screening talent for future employment opportunities within their organization with only a short-term employment commitment,” says Wooden. “Mid-to-large sized organizations can increase their organizational capacity by regularly hiring co-op students, while SMEs can effectively create a position within their organization that is always filled by a co-op student, which helps keeps costs lower and brings fresh energy and new ideas into their SME every four months.”

Bond agrees that fresh energy can invigorate our local business community. “Nova Scotia’s recruitment landscape is poised for growth,” she says. “We are becoming an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural province. As businesses here continue to adopt progressive and inclusive hiring practices, we can expect a more diverse and innovative workforce. This shift will make recruitment more effective and help the region attract and retain exceptional talent.”

Although recruitment is a significant challenge for employers, Bond highlights the energy and opportunity in the industry. “I have never been so excited about our province,” she says. “We are growing and attracting people from all over the world. I am a ‘glass three-quarters-full’ person, and all I see is the opportunity to work alongside other recruitment organizations to help build the leadership capacity of Nova Scotia and Canada.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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