The changing talent game

Time to rethink strategies for attracting, engaging and retaining employees

Illustration by Kara Pyle

Illustration by Kara Pyle

Over the last 10 years, Canada’s labour market has changed dramatically. Rapid advances in technology, coupled with a substantial shift in workplace demographics and the rise of a flexible gig economy means retailers can’t do the same things they’ve always done to successfully attract and retain employees.

“With unemployment at a record low, the demand for workers is strong. It’s an ideal time to be an employee in Canada, but it’s not so good for employers,” says Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto. He notes that grocers, like many in the retail sector, are having a hard time because the jobs they’re offering aren’t highly skilled and workers are exercising their choice to shop around for the best fit. “[Grocers] have to figure out how to make these jobs more attractive or figure out how to use technology to move to a model where they’re less reliant on a large number of lower-skilled workers,” says Mullin. “A good mix of mid-career and younger workers will also diversify this risk and keep [grocers] less exposed.”

Turnover is another big concern in today’s retail labour market. According to a 2018 study by Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm, 29% of retail human resources teams reported an increase in employee turnover from the beginning to end of last year, with part-time employee turnover topping the charts at 81%. Respondents cited better opportunities and promotions as their primary reason for leaving, followed by more money and more hours.

Andrea Wynter, head of human resources at Toronto-based ADP Canada, a global provider of cloud-based human capital management solutions, says grocers no longer have the option to select talent because today’s talent is picking them. “Talent is your new consumer,” she says. “If you want to attract the best, you have to compete for them.”

She says grocers who rely heavily on part-time talent will see increased competition from gig economy employers, such as Uber, that cater to the flexible needs of their workforce. That’s why it’s important for retailers to help potential employees understand why they might want to “buy your company as their place of employment,” she says, and then differentiate yourself by offering perks not traditionally offered within a gig economy, such as employee health benefits, education assistance and mentoring programs.

“Attracting talent today is all about your employer brand, which is available to everyone all the time,” says Wynter. Given that most Canadians apply for jobs online, she says a company’s website and online brand are the first thing they see. “A lack of online presence could cause millennials and others to doubt if your job is worth applying for and perceive your brand as being behind the times,” she says.

Wynter points to a successful recruiting campaign called “Assemble Your Career” launched by IKEA that leveraged brand recognition to attract potential candidates. The company put “Career Instructions” in every flat pack purchased, which Wynter says was an ingenious way to use customers and their love of the brand as a channel to recruit at minimal cost. Best of all, the campaign resulted in 280 new hires.

With technology at a point where people can get targeted job alerts right to their phones, Mullin says recruiters have to be particularly strategic in how they approach prospective candidates. “Yes, it’s all about the web and social media but the apps that high-schoolers are using these days are not the same ones being used by the 26 year olds, and retailers need to know that,” he says.

Independent grocery retailer Joe D’Addario, president of Ontario-based Nature’s Emporium, says social media is also a key factor in attracting younger staff who are looking for employers they can personally align with. “Our brand ambassador Miranda Malisani does an excellent job and her message really resonates with millennials and gen Zs who want to work for organizations with high ethics and standards,” he says. “Social media helps convey the message that we believe in good environmental stewardship and sustainability.”

Even after an employee is on board, the employer has to do its part to keep employees happy and engaged, notes D’Addario. With several staff members who have been on Nature’s payroll for 10 to 25 years, he says it’s the culture at each of his four stores that keeps employees sticking around. “Grocers obviously have to offer prospective employees a competitive wage and robust benefits packages, but more importantly, the culture of the organization is an intangible component that great employees want and need,” he says. At Nature’s Emporium, he says that’s a culture of family, respect and teamwork, which has been carefully crafted over the years. “When we first opened, it was actually very difficult to attract exceptional talent because we were new and our brand wasn’t recognized … but now we are constantly sought out by people who are passionate about health and really want to be part of our team.”

While competitive wages do play a factor in most jobs, it’s not the main motivator in retaining employees, believes recruiter David Gagner of Oakville, Ont.-based recruiting firm Platinum Edge. “In working with our clients, we always try to educate them about the fact that people are looking for more these days,” he says. “When they go into work they want to feel like they make a difference and what they’re doing every day counts—if they just feel like a number, why would they stay?”

In fact, ADP’s recent Evolution of Global Work study showed that 82% of employees surveyed wanted to play an important role in their company. “This is especially true for millennials and gen Z, who want to feel valued and understand how their work is contributing to the company’s success,” says ADP’s Wynter, noting that these cohorts are more likely to seek careers and employers that align with their personal values. “Many employees have a hard time understanding their importance and how they make a difference, so creating a sense of purpose and identity helps them feel valued at work.”

Creating career pathways and ongoing opportunities for existing staff is another part of retention that grocers don’t always take advantage of, says Steve Mendelssohn of Watershed Law Professional Corporation, an Oakville, Ont.-based lawyer who spent a good part of his career in senior HR and consulting roles in the grocery sector. He says his quarrel with grocers these days is that some don’t want to think outside the box when it comes to their business model. “Instead of just hiring more junior employees, grocers might be able to run a better store if they had less turnover and weren’t as worried about the average hourly rate,” he says. “As retention becomes a bigger issue, retailers will be pushed to adapt and change.”

Sobeys’ national director of talent acquisition, Isaias Igreja, says his company has made conscious efforts to provide more programs and opportunities for employees interested in growing their careers in the grocery sector. “We even have summer programs where individuals can spend time in our offices to see if that’s a fit for them,” he says. “[The grocery sector] provides opportunities for all ages— just look at the cross-section of any successful store and you’ll see it is inclusive and diverse.”

As someone whose first job was slicing sandwich meats in a grocery deli, Igreja says it’s important to tell young people about successful professionals in retail who started their careers “pushing carts” in the grocery aisles. “I had a manager who took me under his wing and I had great experiences working in different departments, which gave me an array of useful skills,” he says. “There are a lot of employee career stories here with individuals who have grown up through the store.”

Save-On-Foods in Western Canada is another retailer with a history of promoting within. Heidi Ferriman, vice-president of people & communications, says Save-On-Foods is especially keen to develop team members who show “a drive and appetite to develop themselves and advance their careers with us.” The company recently implemented a master’s degree sponsorship program and has partnered with Athabasca University and Thompson Rivers University to offer Save-On- Foods’ team members opportunities for formal, post-secondary education.

“We’re really focusing on being more vocal about the ways our existing and future team members can grow their careers with us,” says Ferriman. “Just look at our company president [Darrell Jones] who started as a bag boy in high school in a small town in B.C.”

Ferriman says people do better when they understand a company’s plan and see how they can contribute to the company’s success. “Our team members are by far our biggest asset—the foundation of our business—so we want to make sure we give them the tools to ensure they are well-trained, informed and engaged.” With today’s challenging labour market, she says it’s easy to hire quickly and rush through the recruitment process, but advises taking the time to hire people who will do well in a company’s culture.

Then, once employees are hired, she says it’s critical for managers to get to know everyone on their teams. “Engage with them and find out what’s important to them … When team members know their leaders are approachable and available, it just makes for a better workplace,” says Ferriman. When they feel valued and respected, she says, employees are much more likely to stay, be productive and be advocates for the company. “Every single person brings something unique and valuable to the workplace and we really want to make sure that we take the time to build on the unique strengths of our team members.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’December 2019/January 2020 issue.