A Maclean’s special report: Canada’s Top 100 Employers

Even in tough times, these companies know what it takes to get the most out of their staff and attract the best talent out there

A Maclean’s special report: Canada’s Top 100 EmployersThe talent war is over. Talent lost. Or at least it might seem that way to anybody who’s been watching the ranks of the jobless swell over the past year. How many of us, if we haven’t already lost our jobs, don’t know somebody close to us who has? Even among the employed, the relative glory days of the mid-2000s—the yearly raises and big-bucks bonuses and company retreats—have given way to layoffs, pay cuts and creeping pessimism. And small wonder. The unemployment rate in Canada is nearing nine per cent; in the United States, our largest trading partner and the epicentre of the financial meltdown that started this mess, it’s nearly 10 per cent. And here’s the really bad news: few observers think the recovery, when it begins, will translate into a jobs bonanza any time soon. Sure, U.S. Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has declared that the recession is “very likely” over. But as Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, recently noted: “If you’re looking for a job, it sure doesn’t feel like the recession is over.”

Yet the bad news about jobs doesn’t tell the whole story. Need proof? Then just take a look at this year’s list of Canada’s Top 100 Employers.

For the ninth year running, Maclean’s has partnered with Toronto publisher Mediacorp to bring you the country’s most comprehensive independent study of workplace benefits. Mediacorp managing editor Richard Yerema and his team began by reviewing the recruitment histories of more than 75,000 employers, and then invited some 16,000 of them—along with another 8,000 organizations in industries the editors wanted to examine more closely—to complete an application process that entailed an in-depth review of human resources practices and business operations. This year, more than 2,600 organizations applied—up 3.7 per cent from last year, and the most applications in the history of the Mediacorp survey.

For each organization, the editors assigned grades in eight key areas: physical workplace; work atmosphere; health, financial and family benefits; vacation and time off; employee communications; performance management; training and skills development; and community involvement. (Complete results, including grades for each criterion, are available free on Mediacorp’s job-search site,

The result is a revealing glimpse into the latest workplace trends—and into how Canada’s best employers are making a difference for their employees. After all, even if the job landscape is lousy, the competition among employers to attract top talent didn’t disappear along with GDP growth. And the recession didn’t make retaining motivated employees any less important to a pro­ductive workplace. Yes, the resources at hand have in some cases diminished, but creative organizations, both public and private, are finding ways to motivate and inspire their workers even in tough times.

What’s clear is that those tough times have led to a shift in priorities. Take a look at this year’s list and you’ll see less emphasis on fringe benefits and frilly perks. Well-stocked employee lounges and foosball tables have given way to more sober considerations—pension plans, in-house training programs, share purchase schemes. The keyword for employees these days is stability. “Compared to previous years, we do see a shifting focus in the programs and benefits offered by this year’s winning employers,” says Yerema. “Stability and continuity in workplace programs have become a defining characteristic of our best employers, with the flashy extras taking a back seat to traditional benefit programs that make a real difference in the lives of working Canadians.”

It makes sense, then, that the public service has become an increasingly attractive place for Canadians to work. (Thirty-two public sector and non-profit organizations are on the Top 100 list this year.) While the rest of the economy remains moribund, government spending in Canada has been charged with kick-starting the economy—and the public money isn’t just going to build bridges and fix potholes. Between July 2008 and July 2009, the highest increases in weekly wages in Canada occurred among workers in education (6.9 per cent), public administration (4.1 per cent) and health care (3.3 per cent); meanwhile, wages decreased in the private-sector-dominated areas of retail trade (-0.4 per cent), accommodation and food services (-2.9 per cent), and manufacturing—where pay dropped by a whopping 5.5 per cent.

A similar distinction is emerging when it comes to benefits. Public-sector workers typically enjoy excellent medical and dental benefits, maternity leave top-ups and flexible retirement and health plans. (For example, Top 100 employer Statistics Canada offers health coverage for retirees.) And government offers another pip that fewer and fewer private-sector workers enjoy: a traditional pension plan. Many businesses have adopted so-called defined contribution pensions, where payouts upon retirement are determined by the amount available from combined employee/employer contributions; the public sector, meanwhile, continues to offer the more stable and lucrative defined-benefit plans, where payouts are determined by a set formula. Fewer than a quarter of private-sector employees have access to a defined-benefit pension, while more than 80 per cent of government workers do—leading some commentators to worry over the emergence of two classes of employees in Canada.

But as the businesses on the Top 100 list show, there are still plenty of private employers who have adopted progressive workplace practices that rival the perks of the public service. More and more are topping up maternity leave benefits. Others are finding ways to make life outside the office easier, with flexible scheduling and work-from-home arrangements. Accounting firm KPMG has a program to grant up to $20,000 for adoptions; Procter & Gamble offers academic scholarships for children of employees both active and retired. It’s not all about money, either—some “benefits” cost nothing at all. The Great Little Box Co., a Vancouver-based manufacturer, opens its books to all employees, as a simple way to build trust and encourage loyalty.

Finally, it’s good to know that not all the flashy perks have gone the way of Lehman Bros. Employees at Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries have access to a trout pond and a driving range. And if you’re one of the lucky 582 who work for Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op, you can participate in on-site yoga classes or get away from it all in a private nap room. After all, especially in times as glum as these, who couldn’t use a little break once in a while?

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