Security systems firm Fitch Security Integration had to lay off employees at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Now the company is facing the opposite problem: it is in desperate need of technicians to install and service security systems and willing to pay a $7,000 bonus to anyone who makes the cut.
"The signing bonus numbers just came up in desperation," said Edward Fitchett, president of the Toronto company, which typically fills jobs through networking and rarely needs ads.
His small business is not alone. CBC News reviewed dozens of popular job listings sites in Canada such as Glassdoor, Indeed, LinkedIn, SimplyHired, and Workopolis — all of which are owned by the same corporate parent — along with WowJobs, ZipRecruiter, and individual company hiring pages.
CBC News found signing bonuses listed for jobs at big businesses like Amazon, Aspire Bakeries and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.
The use of signing bonuses for common jobs signals that "these are desperate times" for some companies, says Marie-Hélène Budworth, an associate professor with the School of Human Resource Management at York University.
Canada's jobless rate stood at 7.8 per cent in June, and there are about 830,000 workers aged 25-54 without full-time work. Yet as pandemic restrictions ease, some sectors are finding it hard to get the workers they need.
The Bank Of Canada's Business Outlook Survey notes some companies are struggling to find specialised labour while the Royal Bank of Canada cites retirements and a slow return to immigration as among problems in the labour market.
Limited data is available on the popularity of signing bonuses in Canada.
The job site Indeed says ads including signing bonuses have not substantially increased this year. But recruitment firm Robert Half found 35 per cent of 800 senior managers in a variety of sectors it surveyed were offering signing bonuses to help woo workers.
From drivers to hair stylists
Signing bonuses are typically used in tailored offers to top executives, highly skilled workers such as engineers and tech specialists as well as some trades workers like mechanics.
But an online sampling shows signing bonuses are now being included in ads for more common jobs across the country.
In Nova Scotia, a licensed hair stylist can collect a signing bonus to join the Chatters Hair Salon in Halifax, while a delivery driver can get $1,000 to sign with the non-profit National Diabetes Trust in Dartmouth.
In the Montreal area, a call centre sales representative can get a $1,500 signing bonus, while Amazon offers a $1,000 signing bonus for warehouse workers. Aveda posted a $400 signing bonus to recruit an assistant manager for a store.
In Winnipeg, there's a $500 signing bonus for a bilingual customer service representive at the airport. In Edmonton, the same amount is on offer for health care aides, while security guards can get $250 for signing on.
In B.C., the Fairmont Chateau Whistler will pay out a $500 bonus and the same amount in relocation costs for room attendants, Aspire Bakeries is offering $1000 to new production workers in Burnaby and Molly Maid is putting up $1,000 for new cleaners in Victoria.
Tense times for two companies in Ontario
In Caledon, Ont., just over an hour northwest of Toronto, Thomas Wilson is relieved to see pandemic restrictions easing and says his orchard and restaurant business has never been busier.
"People can't go away. They can't go to great far-off destinations," said Wilson, who owns the Spirit Tree Estate Cidery.
But he is worried.
He has eight students on staff who will soon leave for school and he's already short five workers, two of them in key roles.
"If I don't get some hiring done in the next week, I will also be the head baker and the sous chef until we fill those roles," he said.
To lure candidates, Wilson is advertising a $1,000 signing bonus for each job.
It's not the first time he has used bonuses. But after three weeks without any luck in hiring staff, the pressure is mounting as his kitchen struggles to keep up and event bookings are turned down.
Wilson says offering a bigger bonus would be hard because other costs are up as well.
"We lost money last year. We lost money this year so far," he said. "We can only go so far."
Fitchett, the security system company owner in Toronto, says he is even considering increasing the sum offered as a signing bonus.
"It's crazy that it should be, but it is," he said.
He had to lay off four of his technicians early in the pandemic. Three didn't come back and the company has been struggling for a few months to keep up with pent-up demand for services.
Now he has job postings up for three jobs, each offering $7,000 signing bonuses. After 30 days, he did not have a single qualified applicant. He says the staff shortage is causing delays on jobs and may force him to turn clients away.
"You can look outside our back door and see a fleet of trucks sitting there waiting for employees. Without these employees the jobs the salesmen bring in don't get installed," he said.
Not a universal solution
In Langley, B.C., Trevor Borland, the owner of fastener maker Pacific Bolt, is considering robotics to make up for lost business due to a lack of labourers and skilled workers to keep up with orders.
Other businesses in his area are struggling for help too.
"When you drive down the road coming into the industrial park we're in, almost every building has a giant 'Help Wanted' sign," he said.
He doesn't know of anyone offering a signing bonus, but Borland has offered referral bonuses of $500 to employees who bring in a new hire, and raised wages by as much as 15 per cent.
Budworth says raises are better for workers in the long run, and that employees would benefit from trying to lower the signing bonus to increase the salary instead.
She and other experts say that as immigration gradually resumes, some of the pressure on the labour force will ease as more skilled and temporary foreign workers come into the country.
Budworth predicts the signing bonus trend will have a limited life span.
"It might last a while, but it won't last forever," she said.