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White-collar crunch: World talent search on


National Post
April 5, 2006

Alberta's need for highly skilled, white-collar workers to serve the booming oil sector is nearing panic mode. Companies are using every method at their means to find qualified candidates, including paying employees finder's fees of as much as $7,500, using employees in offices outside Canada, and trying to lure Canadian ex-pats to return home from the United States, with huge signing bonuses and stock options.

Soaring energy prices and record profits have led to unprecedented demand for talent in Alberta, from labourers to "C-level" senior executives. Among the most sought-after are white-collar workers -- including lawyers, accountants and sales people -- and companies are getting creative to attract and retain them.

Accounting firms are having to turn down work to focus on key existing clients because they simply don't have enough staff to meet demand.

"It's almost getting to crisis position in terms of professional services firms. If you look at accounting or tax firms, they're significantly challenged right now," says Kevin Hall, co-managing partner of Ray & Berndtson, a Calgary executive search firm. Some clients say the labour shortage is more dire than during the oil boom of the 1960s and '70s, he adds.

Some companies are trying to poach from the competition, driving salaries to unprecedented highs. In some cases, this has led to unwritten agreements between rivals not to recruit from one another to keep salaries from soaring higher, says Brent Shervey, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search.

"When I speak with clients, some instruct us not to approach other companies" with which they have agreements, he says.

People from across the country have flocked to the oil-rich province. In the fourth quarter of 2005, a record 25,100 people settled in Alberta, a growth rate five times the national average, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

Alberta's unemployment rate fell to 3.9% from 4.4% in 2005, while the national average dropped to 6.7% from 7.2%.

Calgary, the financial heart of the energy sector, got most of the new jobs created in Alberta last year, says Bruce Graham, chief executive of Calgary Economic Development. The oil industry created 8,800 new jobs in the city in 2005, for a total of 651,600, many of which were white-collar positions serving the sector. For example, 7,700 jobs were created in the professional, scientific and technical services sectors last year, up 7.7% from 2004.

To retain staff, firms are applying "velvet handcuffs," offering medium- and long-term incentive bonuses and stock options, Mr. Shervey says. A report last year by Calgary-based investment bank Tristone Capital Corp., shows the value of existing employee stock options in the energy sector reached an estimated $7.7-billion.

Salaries in fields such as finance, information technology and sales are soaring, says Phil Wallace, senior vice-president of Aon Consulting. "These sectors are seeing increasing pressure on salaries because of increasing competition in the oil sector. Everything we're seeing is that it's heating up, not cooling off."

Many companies are using "selective premiums," or salary increases, for highly valued jobs, rather than increasing salaries across the board, Mr. Wallace says. Others are offering retention bonuses tied to performance, coupled with large signing bonuses.

"The problem with focusing on pay [alone] is that it makes it really easy to go to another firm if you've got a good offer," says Scott Munn, principal at Mercer Human Resources. As a result, companies are offering flexible work hours, day care and more vacation time.

"Everybody is offering good money. Frankly, some places offer great money, but they aren't too fun to work at after a while," says David Fulton, vice-president of human resources at Shell Canada Ltd. He says Shell focuses on career progression, development, and a healthy work environment, coupled with financial incentives, as part of its retention strategy.

© Copyright 2006 National Post Journal



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