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Lobo Consulting Services principal Colin Lobo, centre, confers with his staff on a project in his Mississauga office, March 1 , 2013. (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Lobo Consulting Services principal Colin Lobo, centre, confers with his staff on a project in his Mississauga office, March 1 , 2013. (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE

This business is so niche it's having a hard time hiring staff Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue .

Since its start in 1997, Toronto-based Lobo Consulting Services Inc. has carved a niche in the country’s justice system, designing security systems for correctional facilities, courthouses and police stations.

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Its high-tech, integrated systems include everything from audio surveillance and access control to X-ray screening and metal detection. Company principal Colin Lobo, who co-founded the firm with his father, Michael, says theirs is one of the few independent security consultants in the country that specializes in justice facilities.

So narrow is the niche that Mr. Lobo says the firm is having difficulty finding employees with the specialized skills needed to handle all aspects of the business.

Because it’s small, it needs individual employees with a range of qualifications, from an engineering background to design and operate complex security systems from the ground up, to being able to effectively liaise with clients, oversee system installations and troubleshoot technology.

“We specialize in these justice facilities so finding individuals … within this very niche market is that much harder,” says Mr. Lobo, whose firm has also worked on healthcare, educational, residential and commercial facilities.

It’s costing the company: Mr. Lobo says he has had to turn down 10 major projects in the past  year because the firm doesn’t have the manpower to take it on. He adds there is enough work to double his staff of six.

“We’re being very selective choosing projects our resources can manage, but there are a lot of projects out there that I could be getting if I had the resources,” says Mr. Lobo, whose company has taken off since making a calculated decision to expand in 2008, with annual revenue growing in the double digits every year since.

There’s “nowhere a person can go to school to learn this particular trade,” Mr. Lobo says, so he must invest a minimum of 18 months of training to bring a new employee up to speed. It’s a burden that falls on him and other senior designers, taking them away from their own work with no guarantee that a new recruit will end up being a right fit.

“You invest so much money to try to find someone but you’re not even able to gauge if they’re suitable for this role for at least a year. For a small business, there’s a big financial risk trying to train someone, not knowing if that person is actually going to be suitable.”

Mr. Lobo says he “lucked out” with one hire who came from a similar company in the United States, while he lured another from a competing security-installation company. Consulting headhunters and advertising on job sites has proved less fruitful: Out of 150 applicants screened since 2008, Mr. Lobo says only two were the right fit, and just one got hired.

“In an ideal world, there would be a larger pool of security consultants here within Canada,” he says.

The Challenge: How can the firm more effectively find the employees it needs from a limited candidate pool?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

David Cohen, principal, Technicolour Umbrella Inc., host of Small Business Big Ideas and author of Bust Out! Ignite Your Inner Entrepreneur

They should be in touch with some of the community colleges and see if they can create a specialized training program for themselves. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Centennial College, Durham College have really good technical programs. I wonder if they can use the infrastructure there to create a feeder program or engineering stream that ends up in jobs. Job are key right now in the economy so they might even be able to get some government support on this as well. Approach these sources and see if they’ll partner up with them to provide them with qualified people.

Failing that, I used to work with a non-profit called the Learning Enrichment Foundation [in Toronto] and they offered trades training programs. Their bike repair program was really niche and really small to start and it’s since grown. That tells me that there’s room for a vocational centre like this one to really stream. Security is going to be a big area moving forward, so perhaps they can train people for other security applications and installations, make it a little more comprehensive and even work to design it with other security-consulting companies.

Henry Goldbeck, president of Goldbeck Recruiting Inc., Vancouver

If he’s looked this long and he has a history of not being able to find people in Canada, then bringing someone in from the States or even from overseas should not be that difficult. It will take a little bit of time and planning, maybe three to six months to bring them in, but it’s already taken him years to find somebody.

Also, if he posted a position, 150 applicants is not a large number. Lots of companies have that same experience of getting hundreds of résumés and not finding qualified people. If you’re looking for a cow and you put up your poster in the chicken pen, you’re going to get 200 chickens, but you’re not going to get any cows. So you have to be able to make the position known in an area where qualified people are going to see it, and sometimes that’s contacting people on a one-by-one basis, putting an ad in an association website or targeting special niche areas.

Nick Martin, owner, F.A.S.T. Enterprises Inc., Toronto

Our focus is high-end commercial fitness equipment installation and repairs. The repair of this fitness equipment isn’t a very large industry but because we focus on a few high-end brands, we need a higher skill set than the average fitness technician, which is a rare bird in the first place.

[Mr. Lobo’s] market sounds a lot like ours in that [employees] have to be a jack-of-all-trades. You want to find that jack-of-all-trades with a basket of skills who looks like they’re going to work, and really spend some time to find out if that person has the right attitude and the right fit for your company culture. Then invest as heavily as you can in them.

We bring people in with relevant transferable skills: electricians, auto mechanics, technicians who are looking either for a change or have been struggling to find work in their own industry, [but] our most successful hiring method is to focus on attitude first. I can train skill sets, I can’t train a positive mental attitude. Good people with transferable skills almost always work out. We do online interviews where we will e-mail back and forth with people to get a sense of communication skills.

We have a 90-day probationary period that we use to find out if someone has the right attitude. We also use that to measure basic skills. If a person successfully achieves that in 90 days, then we offer them a position with the intention of training them for up to a year and a half on something that could very well turn into a career if they decide to pursue it.

It’s a gamble, but, when it pays off, it’s a beautiful thing.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Look into training partnerships

Check with colleges or other security-consulting companies to see if they’d team up to create training streams or feeder programs. Apply for government support.

Mine international resources

Look to other countries with a larger pool of candidates.

Improve recruiting tactics

Spend time researching more effective places to seek out new hires. Instead of placing general job openings, focus on industry-specific publications or organizations.

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