Business

The Nortel job machine

The high-technology giant is scrambling to sign up talent

JOHN SCHOFIELD November 17 1997
Business

The Nortel job machine

The high-technology giant is scrambling to sign up talent

JOHN SCHOFIELD November 17 1997

The Nortel job machine

Business

The high-technology giant is scrambling to sign up talent

JOHN SCHOFIELD

They were the chosen ones. Carefully culled from the country’s best universities, 1,000 computer science and engineering students were airlifted to Ottawa late last month to be courted by high-technology giant Northern Telecom Ltd. For what was billed as one of the largest career fairs ever staged by a North American company, the students were lodged in several of the capital’s finest hotels and chauffeured around in 22 plush tour buses. At the company’s sprawling research “campus” in suburban Nepean, 200 managers from Nortel offices across the country spoke glowingly of career opportunities and amiably answered the students’ questions. The event, five months in the planning, cost $500,000. “It was money well spent,” says Anne McKenna, Nortel’s senior manager of university relations and organizer of the weekend. “We’ve already made 275 offers strictly as a result of that fair, and there are going to be more.” Many more, in fact. The telecommunications business is booming, and Nortel, based in Brampton, Ont., is scrambling to find the talent it needs to keep up. Just last week, the high-tech powerhouse announced a $586-million takeover of Broadband Networks Inc. of Winnipeg, and a $1.1-billion deal to supply wireless networking equipment to Teligent, an Alexandria, Va.-based communications firm. Other recent deals have been announced in Germany and Latin America.

To cope with the surging worldwide demand for its products, Nortel plans to hire 5,000 people in Canada this year and an equal number in 1998—making it the country’s fastest-growing employer and one of the most high-profile success stories of the new economy. For workers in shrinking industries of old, or those counted in the country’s 9.1-per-cent unemployment rate, the pace of expansion is striking. During the next two months alone, says John Roth, Nortel’s president and chief executive officer, the company hopes to sign up 1,500 employees. About 90 per cent will have backgrounds in electrical engineering, computer science or other technical fields, and will be channelled into the company’s $2.5-billion-a-year research and development program.

But good people are getting harder to find. In the search for recruits, Nortel is competing with Canadian rivals such as Kanata, Ont.-based Newbridge Networks Corp., which plans to hire up to 4,000 more workers by 2001. U.S. giants such as Microsoft Corp. have also become more of a threat, hiring hundreds of Canadian computer science graduates every year. Meanwhile, the number of

unfilled jobs is growing. The Software Human Resource Council, an Ottawa-based organization established five years ago to promote the development of computer skills in Canada, estimates that about 50,000 information technology jobs may remain vacant by the turn of the century. “The competition for talent is fierce,” says Roth. “And it’s increasing as the market becomes more and more competitive.”

The search for good people begins within Nortel’s own ranks. The company spends millions of dollars annually to train existing employees in new skills. Nortel also relies on its staff to point the way to potential candidates outside the company. A generous incentive program helps: employees who refer recruiters to a successful job candidate receive a $1,600 bonus. This year, the company also organized “bring a friend to work” job fairs in Ottawa and Brampton. “We recognize our people as being part of the hiring process,” says Sue Halpin, Nortel’s North American personnel director. “All the time, we’re looking at new ways to build our network.”

Several times a year, the company casts an even wider net by sponsoring career open houses. One event last June, held days after Nortel unveiled its Ottawa expansion plans, attracted 9,000 people. “It was a zoo,” says Halpin. Hopeful candidates, some clad in power suits and gripping briefcases, waited patiently in lineups stretching half a kilometre to submit their résumés to recruiters. To lighten the mood, employees served nachos, popcorn and soft drinks, and the first 5,000 people through the doors received Nortel Frisbees. Two hundred applicants were hired.

To find those skills, Nortel focuses much of its recruiting effort on universities, where roughly one-third of the new hires are found. ‘We’re looking for well-rounded employees who have done well academically, have gained work experience and participated in extracurricular activities,” says McKenna. Tne idea is to get them early. For the past 10 years, Nortel has offered co-operative work terms for high-school students in the Ottawa area. A similar program is

about to begin in the Toronto area, and Nortel’s wireless manufacturing centre in Calgary may follow suit. The jobs, which include designing Internet Web pages and other tasks, are posted at local schools. Successful candidates work half or full days for between four and eight months, and receive course credits. “The main focus is to encourage them to look at technology careers as an option,” says McKenna, Nortel’s university-relations manager. ‘We’re trying to hook them on it.”

Most of the university students who end up working at Northern Telecom have done previous internships or co-op work terms. Indeed, the company is Canada’s largest employer of co-op students and student interns, welcoming about 2,000 every year. And in many instances, they are offered jobs even before they com-

plete their programs. Ron Buchanan, a University of Manitoba electrical engineering graduate who joined Nortel last April, was invited to stay on just before he finished a 16-month internship in August, 1996. “My manager took me into a meeting room and said, ‘Here’s how much we’re offering—think about it,’ ” Buchanan, 23, recalls. ‘The next night, I got an official offer package by courier.” He accepted, and now works in the company’s research and development centre in Ottawa.

Nortel officials decline to

say exactly how much they pay their recruits, citing competitive conditions. But executives at other Canadian high-tech companies say computer science graduates can expect to earn between $45,000 and $50,000 in their first year, and Halpin says the company conducts frequent market surveys to ensure it is keeping up with its rivals. Moreover, pay scales are rising fast. Janice Schellenberger, a senior partner with Personnel Systems, an Ottawabased human resources consultant, says experienced workers in sought-after fields such as wireless communications are enjoying annual pay increases of 10 per cent, compared with an average of four to five per cent for other hightech professionals. “Even for new grads,” she adds, “we’re seeing salaries really starting to heat up.”

For today’s young job seeker, however, the choice of an employer often involves other issues besides money. Buchanan says he knew that the pay at most companies would be about the same. What really

made the difference were the benefits, the overall atmosphere, and the opportunity to grow. Determined to attract the best talent, hightech firms are dangling increasingly elaborate amenities. For Buchanan, Nortel came out on top. “I think the company really values having happy employees,” he says.

For starters, forget shirts and ties. At Nortel’s main research facility in Nepean, with about 10,500 employees, “it’s similar to a university environment,” says McKenna. ‘You can wear jeans and Tshirts and it’s very informal. It’s a very comfortable environment for students.” Recreational facilities abound. The huge, 145-hectare property features a health club with squash courts, two soccer fields, two beach volleyball courts, a wilderness trail and two softball diamonds. Nortel’s Ottawa operation boasts the largest private

softball league in Canada, with 700 teams. “Recreation is a big feature for a lot of Generation X’ers,” says Halpin. “They work really hard, then they’ll go off and do a bit of sport and get a bit of balance. But then they’ll come back later and keep working.”

The benefits are impressive, too. A “cafeteria-style” benefits plans allows employees to vary their health, dental and optical coverage according to their individual needs, and the company kicks in one dollar for every two dollars invested in the stock purchase plan. New grads start off with two weeks’

vacation, plus an additional week off at Christmas. Those with internship experience at Nortel often receive three weeks and a signing bonus when they start.

Training, Nortel managers say, is a crucial part of keeping employees content. Buchanan spent three months of his 16-month internship learning new skills. “I have a lot of opportunity to grow

and just go where I want to go,” he says. The mood among Nortel employees wasn’t always so upbeat. In 1993, management was flailing for direction and the company’s fortunes hit a low point. It suffered a $1.1-billion loss and cut about 3,000 employees from its workforce worldwide. For McKenna, the memory of those dark days is still vivid, and makes the company’s current success that much sweeter. “This is completely opposite. We can’t find enough people, and what a great position to be in,” she says. “It’s positive, it’s growing and it’s exciting.”

In Ottawa, where the local economy has been hit in recent years by waves of civil-service layoffs, residents are celebrating the success of Nortel and other high-tech companies. There is a new air of confidence, says local realtor Joan Smith. For the first time in years, hundreds of new homes are planned or under construction in suburban Kanata, the region’s high-tech mecca. And while Nortel’s new hires have yet to make their presence felt in the real estate market, established homeowners are finally working up the courage to trade up, she says.

According to the Ottawa-Carleton Economic Development Corp., high-tech companies in and around the capital have created 7,152 jobs so far this year. Calling itself Silicon Valley North, after

the region of northern California that gave birth to the U.S. hightech industry, the Ottawa area is now home to about 770 technology ventures employing more than 47,000 people. Many of those firms were started by engineers and scientists whose roots go back to Northern Telecom and its former research arm, Bell Northern Research. “There’s no doubt that Bell Northern had an enormous

impact on the development of Ottawa’s high-tech industry,” says Denzil Doyle, former president of Digital Equipment of Canada Ltd. and currently chairman of Capital Alliance Ventures, a venture capital firm that has investments in 17 hightech start-ups.

Ironically, Northern Telecom’s size and its success are in some ways impediments to attracting top-flight talent. Many young graduates prefer to contribute to the success of I a small start-up—and po-

0 tentially reap greater finan-

1 cial rewards through stock gi options and initial public of| ferings. “It seems Nortel’s

becoming less popular to work for lately,” says Dave Brown, a 23-year-old computer science student at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. He added that some students “steer away from large companies,” believing that they offer fewer opportunities for personal growth.

Halpin acknowledges that one of Nortel’s biggest challenges is to sell the firm to prospective employees as a tightly knit collection of small enterprises and divisions rather than a monolithic corporation. Erasing that image could be key to the company’s future prosperity. ‘There is no doubt that high technology is an ideas game and ideas reside in people’s heads,” says Doyle. “So getting the right people and retaining them is absolutely critical.” Nortel is clearly prepared to do whatever it takes. □

GROWTH SPURT

Worldwide employment

Northern Telecom Ltd. revenues (inbUlions)