Some Vancouver companies lure, retain workers with jobs that make a difference

By The Canadian Press
June 5, 2016 - 10:08pm

VANCOUVER — As Michelle Reid watches Vancouver house prices soar while preparing for the arrival of her first baby, she sometimes kicks herself for not buying property 10 years ago.

But Reid says she can tough it out financially because she has a job where she’s making a difference, which some Vancouver businesses are using to entice workers to the city with a high cost of living.

“There are a couple of things we’re going to have to give up, but I don’t feel unhappy for it in the long run,” said Reid, whose baby is due mid-June. “If I had to work in a job that was soulless, that would be a far worse outcome.”

Reid, 40, works for Mills Office Productivity and oversees the company’s environmental and social initiatives. She said she never suspected office supplies would be the path to her passion, adding with a laugh, it’s “not the sexiest industry.”

The company’s values deliver satisfaction beyond a six-figure salary, and that has helped recruit two new recent employees despite the expensive housing market.

The city’s social-venture sector has grown by 35 per cent since 2010, employing almost 13,000 people and exceeding earnings of $500 million annually, says a 2015 study by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. The study defines these ventures as businesses that contribute toward a social, environmental or cultural mission, purpose or benefit.

Companies will be recruiting at a Vancouver career fair on Thursday called Startup City: Impact. Businesses at the fair want candidates who might otherwise be considering positions in less costly cities, said Keith Ippel, CEO of Spring Activator, which is co-ordinating the fair among a week of business-support events.

“That’s a universal truth, that it’s an expensive place to live,” said Ippel. “The reality is employers need to find new ways to look beyond cash as a way to get people excited about joining.”

Vancouver as an unaffordable brand has spread across Canada, said Sean Elbe, with the Vancouver Economic Commission. He was at the University of Waterloo in Ontario last week promoting ways for employers to counter recruiting challenges.

“Companies are moving away from simply having a ping pong table and beer Fridays, and really thinking about how they can help their employees make a real impact, not just in their company but in the world,” Elbe said.

One company is offering new hires the deposit on a Tesla electric car, he said, while another allows unlimited vacation time.

The University of British Columbia is tackling the housing obstacle head on with a campus-based faculty home ownership program, which was developed in 2012, said Michael White, associate vice-president of campus and community planning.

“Housing, then and now, is an issue for retaining and attracting faculty and staff, and so the university has taken it seriously for a number of years and it’s continuing to do so,” he said.

More than 75 faculty members have received preliminary approval for a second mortgage loan, White said. The university has also housed staff in 400 campus rental units and has plans for more, he said. The school offers rentals at 75 per cent of the market rate.

Several other North American universities use similar models, White said, but he believes the initiative to be “fairly unique” within Vancouver.

Elbe couldn’t cite other employers directly targeting the housing crunch. But he said an upcoming survey by HR Tech Group is expected to report salaries are rising in the tech sector, easing costs for workers in Vancouver’s fastest growing industry.

Vancouver’s housing prices aren’t outrageous compared to other tech hubs like Silicon Valley or New York City, said Tom Williams, a Victoria-born entrepreneur in San Francisco. 

He believes B.C. over promotes work-life balance.

“As an employee in a high-growth company, I don’t think, ‘Oh gosh, am I going to join this company or am I going to be able to go skiing?’ ” said Williams, CEO of BetterCompany.

“When a leader is trying to recruit top-level talent from anywhere else to B.C., they have to say, ‘I’m wiling to help you transform my organization into a cultural dynamic that’s capable of being competitive anywhere else in the world.’ “

Suzanne Ma, co-founder of Routific, a software firm that helps delivery companies reduce their use of fuel, said her small business is facing the housing challenge while competing for workers with tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook.

She believes her company’s goal of helping the environment helped draw two seasoned employees.

“They were not deterred by the housing because they believed enough in the position that they wanted to be part of the team.”

— Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

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