‘It’s fierce out there’: Ottawa employers scramble to find and keep talent

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National unemployment numbers out today are just a hint at what is becoming a red-hot job market.

Canada's labour market shook off the shock of COVID-19 in February, with the unemployment rate dropping to levels seen prior to the pandemic. A gain of 337,000 jobs in February more than offset a loss of 200,000 jobs in January and dropped the unemployment rate to 5.5 per cent, below the 5.7 per cent recorded in February 2020.

The unemployment rate in Ottawa ticked up to 5 per cent in February, from 4.7 per cent in January. In Gatineau, the rate fell to 4.6 per cent from 5 per cent.

“The job market has been really, really hot and now you're just adding record low unemployment to it,'' said Travis O'Rourke, president of recruitment firm Hays Canada. “Now it's scorching. If you're considering going for that promotion or asking for that raise, now is a good time.''

Josh Garellek, co-founder and CEO of Ottawa software company Arctic Leaf, has been busy adjusting his company’s hiring process as the job market intensifies. For example, he has had to beef up his company’s benefits package with additional perks, from meditation sessions and corporate phone plans, to remote offices and complimentary stationery. His hiring process has also changed, with new methods of interviewing and matching personality traits, without limiting the candidate pool to Ottawa. 

“We’re happy with the approach and it’s working well for us,” Garellek said. “But we’ve had to become more competitive, and you have to have all those extra perks to retain those individuals.”

Ottawa's Real Strategy Advisors with its nine-person team also has felt the pinch. CEO Darren Fleming said that even trying to fill his one open position has been tricky. In order to retain and attract staff, Fleming has implemented a four-day work week, flexible remote work options and “amazing workspaces and culture”. 

“The way we can compete with bigger companies is by offering a lifestyle and work environment that is attractive,” Fleming said. “There’s no tolerance left for good talent to not have some degree of flexibility and in the next few years we’ll see some moving around. The good people are going to shuffle around so the lifestyle fits their … new post-COVID life.” 

“It’s fierce out there,” added Fleming. “But this new way to work is here to stay … and it’s worth going that extra mile to make your employees feel valued.”

The situation is putting intense pressure on wages, experts agree.

“The single largest motivator for somebody to accept a job tends to be money,'' O'Rourke said. “However, all of the other factors together are worth more than money.''

“The bargaining power is shifting in favour of workers at the expense of employers,'' said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist of CIBC World Markets. “If you're a Canadian who's looking for a job, there's one out there for you.''

With files from Canadian Press