Employers are realizing that they need to be more flexible to win what experts call the "war for talent" as job seekers maintain the upper hand in a tight Canadian labour market entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada's labour market is buoyant, according to the latest employment data released by Statistics Canada on Friday. The country added 337,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent, the first time the number has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

StatCan's data shows that the labor market is getting tighter. Low unemployment and a large number of job openings are providing more options for job seekers. This has also increased competition among potential employers.

FoodShare Toronto is one of those who take the extra step to show candidates that they are serious.

Earlier this month, the company began paying a flat fee of $75 to applicants who make it to the interview stage – whether or not the company ultimately hires them – and an hourly rate if the application involves any tasks or other forms of labor.

While FoodShare's executive director Paul Taylor told Global News that the company usually has no shortage of applicants for open positions, it has begun offering stipends in recognition that finding a job is often a job in itself.

"Frankly, employers have been avoiding regulation for a long time," he says. "There's a lot of work that goes into preparing for an interview. There's research, there's practice, there's commuting, and there's finding child care."

Since the company announced it would be adopting a new hiring model, Taylor says he has received messages from HR representatives across the country asking about FoodShare's practices.

Recruitment and human resources experts say innovation in the hiring process is critical to finding candidates in a time of change in the job market.

Travis O'Rourke, president of recruitment firm Hays Canada, says Canada is in a "war for talent" as competition for labour shortages intensifies. He says Hays Canada is recruiting on behalf of its clients for approximately 1,000 open positions at any given time.

Whereas in the traditional hiring process job seekers struggled to convince employers that they were a good fit for the company, the conversation has shifted to companies trying to convince prospects that their workplace is a good fit for the candidate allowance in terms of values, compensation and other aspects.

"Companies almost always have the position, 'You should be lucky to work here,'" O'Rourke said of the pre-pandemic hiring norms.

"The candidate attraction process has changed a lot. And now, the employee or candidate is definitely the one with the power."

This shift in power is also rapidly streamlining hiring decisions, O'Rourke says. The competitive job market has compressed schedules before the interview process, which can involve a handful of decision makers and last more than a month.

"The best thing to do is to do it in a week," he said. "I certainly wouldn't recommend more than two weeks for any organization."

Julie Labrie, president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions, says one of the biggest shifts job seekers want from their potential employers is to embrace a particularly mixed work culture.

She says showing that employers have the flexibility to offer work-from-home and on-site options ranks high among the many job seekers who work with BlueSky.

When applicants asked these questions before the pandemic, they were more likely to be thwarted by employers who required a five-day work week in the office. Today, Labrie says, things have changed and hiring managers are more open to requests for flexible work arrangements.

"Now the shift has changed, and we're seeing more customers saying, 'Yes, you can.'"

Even as public health measures such as masks and vaccines are on the decline in parts of the country, experts say allowing remote work is a trend that employers will have to stay attuned to in the coming months as the cost of commuting rises.

O'Rourke said prices at the pump and Canada's annual inflation rate have continued to soar in recent months, putting new pressure on wages to keep pace.

"Inflation is hitting us at the grocery store, it's definitely hitting us at the gas tank, and employees are looking for more money to make up for that," he said.

O'Rourke warns that failure to adequately accommodate and compensate employees in the new pandemic reality may cause them to jump ship as they look to take advantage of the hot labor market.

"Those who don't have a flexible work policy that matches someone's personal life may face some unnecessary attrition in the coming months."

Taylor says the changing dynamics of the market are forcing employers to be aware of what they must look for when hiring. While previous employers could get minimal attention, he said, the new demands on applicants in the marketplace are forcing many to "go on the road" in terms of corporate culture.

"Maybe it's an epidemic. Maybe it's other shifts in the times. But I think people are really starting to realize the inequalities that have been allowed to get worse for too long and are fighting back."

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