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Canada’s biggest engineering firms are having trouble hiring.

At a time of double-digit unemployment, Montreal-based WSP Global Inc. is looking for hundreds of white-collar workers as it grapples to handle a contract backlog worth $8.5-billion and expand its international footprint. But it is not able to get new employees in the door fast enough because the normal vetting and integration process has been stymied by government stay-at-home orders caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, chief executive Alexandre L’Heureux says.

“The fact of the matter is that we are having a very hard time hiring,” Mr. L’Heureux told a virtual investor meeting organized by National Bank Financial this week. “It’s quite difficult to recruit new recruits essentially and make sure that they come and they are functional on day one and that they know the WSP way of doing business and be in a position to make an impact right away. … Clearly this is causing some disruption.”

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The situation mirrors other Canadian companies struggling to keep their operations on pace and workplace cultures intact through the pandemic. It also suggests that communicating via internet and phone is an imperfect substitute for face-to-face interaction, especially for human resource departments trying to bring in talent to fuel growth.

Getting comfortable with candidates, without meeting them in person, and training are proving more challenging now, especially when companies are competing for the best employees, WSP finance chief Alain Michaud said in an interview. He said that’s putting pressure on the company’s growth plans, although the situation is less acute in some countries and cities.

“There’s a war for talent out there,” Mr. Michaud said. “[And this is] one more thing to deal with. … In a people business, it’s quite an important piece.”

Other engineering and construction firms say they are also having trouble adding people as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., for example, is seeing challenges recruiting for some roles as candidates are less willing to relocate amid the uncertainty provoked by the crisis, said company spokesperson Daniela Pizzuto. “Overall, this isn’t impacting our delivery to clients,” she said.

WSP makes money by selling expertise on a fee-for-service basis. About 60 per cent of its revenue comes from fixed-price contracts or cost-plus contracts with payment ceilings. For the other 40 per cent, the company bills hours directly to clients. Hiring challenges are going to impact sales “in some way,” Mr. L’Heureux said.

“You cannot generate as much revenue if you don’t have the people to do the work,” National Bank analyst Maxim Sytchev said. “If your headcount is flat, either people are going to have to work more in order to be able to perform the same amount of work they would have done historically. Or you have to hire people.”

The problem is a timing issue owing to the pandemic and not a structural problem within the company, Mr. Sytchev said. He said the issue should should have no impact on earnings estimates.

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Hiring has become much more difficult for companies generally, said Moneet Sidhu, a recruitment consultant specializing in engineering for Edmonton-based The Headhunters. Partly, that’s because there are more applicants for jobs as a result of layoffs, leading to more people to vet.

“What would have maybe been faster is now a little more delayed,” Ms. Sidhu said. “Before, by posting or headhunting, you received 20 or 30 applicants. Well now you’re receiving upwards of 100.”

Hiring success often depends on how quickly companies can act to identify and bring in candidates, professional recruiter Steven Cardwell said. As he puts it: COVID or no COVID, “time will kill a deal.”

WSP, which has a market capitalization of $9.5-billion, has ballooned through acquisitions from a former boutique consultancy known as Genivar and currently employs about 50,000 people. The company, a specialist in transportation infrastructure and skyscrapers, last year unveiled a strategy to grow annual net revenue by more than 10 per cent and employ 65,000 people by the end of 2021.

WSP website showed about 900 job vacancies across the world as of Wednesday. In any given year, the company loses about 14 per cent of its staff naturally through retirements and other moves.

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