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From left, Rich Russey, VP and Publisher of Inc. Media, Brendon Bernard, economist at Indeed Canada, and Jamie Hoobanoff, founder of The Leadership Agency.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

The good employment news is not necessarily great news for small business owners.

When the labour market is hot – as it is at the moment, with job openings on the rise across much of the Canadian economy and the latest unemployment rate dipping to just 5.7 per cent – businesses face tougher competition to attract the best new hires, labour watchers say.

For small businesses, it can be even tougher. Yet, there are tricks that can used by small businesses to better sell themselves, from refining their company stories to changing their hiring criteria, all in an effort to become more attractive to potential hires.

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“It really depends on how small of a small business you’re talking about,” said Brendon Bernard, an economist with Indeed Canada, the Canadian office of the international jobs listing service, speaking at the recent Small Business Summit at The Globe and Mail in Toronto. Indeed was one of the sponsors of the event.

Companies with between 20 and 90 employees have broadly shown they are participating in the overall growth of jobs, as seen in an increasing number of employees on small business payrolls. Yet, micro-businesses of fewer than 20 people have recently posted their slowest rate of job growth since the 2008-09 recession, he said. “So, it seems like the strength that we see in the Canadian labour market hasn’t really translated over into growing employment at Canada’s smallest businesses."

Small and micro-business that are hiring often find it challenging to attract top candidates, given they need to complete with bigger companies that often can offer higher salaries and more benefits. As a result, many hiring managers are finding they have to loosen their criteria and become more content with workers with transferable skills. The trucking industry is a prime example. In 2016, roughly 1 in 5 trucking jobs were open to truckers with little experience. By the end of 2018, more than a third of trucking job openings were available to novice truckers, Mr. Bernard said.

Other changes in the search for workers include recruiting from other regions of the country and from abroad (especially in the technology sector), making the terms of employment more attractive (such as turning two part-time openings into a more attractive full-time position) and even adopting a constant, perpetual search for new hires (especially in high-turnover businesses such as restaurants).

In short, “employers are getting creative in how they try to fill roles,” Mr. Bernard said.

For small businesses, there’s an extra level of creativity that’s needed, said Jamie Hoobanoff, founder and chief executive officer of The Leadership Agency, a sales and executive recruitment firm in Toronto, with a focus on serving the startup business community.

Her first line of advice is for small businesses to make their company stories as dynamic to employees as the story they tell to attract investors. Prospective hires “want to know what your value proposition is, what your unique advantage is, what industries you’re improving, what industries you’re disrupting. They want to know what your challenges are,” she said.

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In other words, be much more open. “Start looking at potential employees as potential investors in your organization. … When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested and their career is invested, they want to contribute [and be recognized by the company],” she added.

Then, there is the question of talent versus experience. A fantastic résumé, detailing a high level of experience, may actually belie a less-than-driven employee or a skill set that’s different than what you’re looking for. “Experience doesn’t always add up to being that great hire,” Ms. Hoobanoff said.

Instead, small-business owners should stay away from “must-have” requirements for a job. If the prerequisite experience for a job opening is too restrictive, it could scare away great candidates and obscure the truly talented. But getting rid of the “must-have” requirements doesn’t mean simply changing the language of the job notice. It means adapting a more broad-minded approach to hiring, Ms. Hoobanoff said. “Do not be a résumé snob.”

Similarly, she advises small-business owners to look for patterns in candidates’ track records. Did they flit from job to job? Were they committed and stable? Maybe other talents, such as an athletic background, play a part in their makeup. Don’t fixate on the amount of experience a candidate has, but focus on what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, Ms. Hoobanoff said. And how that background will fit into a small company’s culture is something very difficult to deduce purely from a résumé.

Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean relying on gut instincts when hiring new employees, Mr. Bernard suggested. He pointed to research that compared normal, interview-based hiring practices and hiring that also involved candidates writing a test. Some researchers particularly note the benefit of test-taking for jobs in service industries such as retail and call centres.

“They found that a test was a really good predictor of success at the job, specifically lower turnover. And they also found that often times when managers went with their gut and overrode the test, then often you would see turnover rise,” Mr. Bernard said.

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