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top 100 employers for 2013

Karyn Pugliese, news director for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and host Michael Hutchinson.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

In 1998, all Karyn Pugliese wanted to do was to live and breathe the news.

But the fresh Carleton journalism grad and single mom struggled to get a break, feeling "like a kid who couldn't get a chance to play in the schoolyard."

Heartbroken, she became a technical writer in the federal government to stay near her family in Ottawa – while polishing off a masters degree in history on the side.

A chance call from a professor, along with her being a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Pikwàkanagàn, led to a job as a news researcher for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network Inc. (APTN ), a national network with programming by, for and about aboriginal people.

After honing her craft there from 2000 to 2006, Ms. Pugliese went on to work for Vision TV and then for the Assembly of First Nations before coming full circle back to APTN this year as director of news and current affairs at their Winnipeg headquarters.

"APTN did two things – the formal training and the chance to get your hands dirty," says Ms. Pugliese, 42.

"If you failed, it was okay. They let you make mistakes. In my second year there, stories broke about some controversial legislation that was going through and next thing I knew, I was a parliamentary reporter. What they did was very smart, pairing me with a cameraman with years of experience on the Hill. They always made sure I had the support I needed."

That support allowed Ms. Pugliese to schedule work around her child custody agreement. If she took her son along when reporting from out of town, the company helped to find and pay for daycare.

Named to Canada's 100 Top Employers for the first time, APTN continues to find resources to invest in its staff. It's a priority and a key reason why the company made the list for 2013, along with other first-time winners such as Shoppers Drug Mart Inc. and The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT).

Approximately one-quarter of the organizations named to the list each year are new.

Besides supporting ongoing education and career development as well as offering flexible work arrangements, other perks among the top companies typically include generous top-up payments for new and adoptive parents, extended health benefits and a variety of profit sharing, pension plans and retirement programs.

So how do these winning companies do it, especially in slower times? APTN cuts back on other things but not on people, according to CEO Jean LaRose. With almost half of their employees taking advantage of training and development opportunities, he looks for savings elsewhere by asking staff to come up with cost-cutting ideas for their departments and by shaving substantial amounts off flights.

"WestJet has these seat sales, so if managers know they have travel coming up, staff go online and book flights at the best rates," Mr. LaRose says. "Over the past few years, we've saved about half a million dollars in flight costs. All of that money stays within the organization to pay for things like training and development programs."

While APTN prides itself on being an employer of choice for aboriginal people, with a low turnover, many first-timers to the Top 100 see the award as an effective recruitment tool.

For that reason, Sheila Bassi-Kellett, deputy minister of human resources for the GNWT, says they are thrilled to be on the list. As a growing organization in the process of devolution – transferring responsibilities from the Government of Canada to the GNWT – they're anxious to attract more employees to the North. While about one-third of their work force is aboriginal, a percentage they want to increase, Ms. Bassi-Kellett says they still need people to come from elsewhere.

She believes what makes the GNWT notable – besides generous compensation and leave packages, such as five paid holidays during their dark winter – is a chance to make a difference.

"We're a very horizontal organization," Ms. Bassi-Kellett says. "As a deputy minister, I regularly have contact with interns and program officers, which is not a reality in bigger governments like Ontario. So the opportunity to actually have an impact – to have access to decision makers and be able to present innovative ideas – really exists within our government. That's incredibly attractive."

One area where the GNWT is very aggressive in recruiting is their student and intern summer program, designed to promote a northern work force and provide a taste of what the public service has to offer. It worked out well for Martin Goldney, now the executive director and chief negotiator for the GNWT's Office of Devolution. Mr. Goldney spent five summers as a student for the GNWT, starting when he was a university undergraduate.

"I'd come back and work for the GNWT doing everything from being a driver examiner for transportation to eventually working in the legal division for the Department of Justice," says Mr. Goldney, who grew up in Yellowknife. "That led to an articling position and being hired on as a lawyer. Those summers made me feel that this might be a career I wanted."

At the Toronto headquarters for Shoppers Drug Mart Inc., Mary-Alice Vuicic, chief administrative officer and executive vice-president for human resources and public affairs, says that being named as one of Canada's top employers provides an objective validation of their organization and is an important benefit for recruiting. With offices across the country, the company is the licensor of retail drug stores operating under the name Shoppers Drug Mart and Pharmaprix in Quebec.

"Our objective is to be an employer and a franchisor of choice," Ms. Vuicic says. "When people are looking for jobs, they want to know if the company has been recognized by others as a good place to be associated with and a good place to work."

But what she believes sets their company apart is their ability to listen – to customers, employees and franchisees – through extensive surveying of their people and listening sessions twice a year with an open Q and A.

"Every year we do engagement surveys across the business, with participation rates of roughly 90 to 95 per cent," Ms. Vuicic says. "We focus very keenly on the results of those surveys with specific action plans that we report on and track throughout the year."

Ms. Vuicic believes that their high participation rates, even after five years of employee surveys, speaks to the fact that people feel something will be done as a result of their feedback, so there is a sense of empowerment.

Empowerment is also what Ms. Pugliese feels being back at APTN, where if one her staff needs help or she has questions, there's an open-door policy.

"APTN is just this very creative and supportive place where everyone says, 'Nothing is impossible; we can figure this out,' " Ms. Pugliese says. "We're really a team."