The time for a paradigm shift for Canadian small and medium-sized business leaders and owners has arrived.
By 2012, 1,105,972 SMEs in Canada created, on average, 10,000 jobs annually, and spent $10.5 billion on research and development. Yet because of minimal exporting efforts, contributed 27% to annualized Canadian GDP, a figure unchanged since 2002. (Statistics Canada, Key Small Business Statistics, August, 2013).
Yes, it is and has been a difficult local market for SMEs. And of the 10.2% of small business and 34.4% of medium-sized businesses engaged in exporting, over 80% is shipped to the United States. Business leaders and owners must learn to diversify and tap into the potential purchasing power of a vastly growing emerging markets and beyond.
In Accentures’ recent study, many SME business owners suggested difficulty in developing connections and the local knowledge necessary to break into foreign markets. I would expect the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, with over 100,000 members, to assume a leadership role in helping SMEs better understand each market. How to navigate the connections, operational requirements, financing and selling opportunities to markets abroad.
If not the CFIB, there are local chambers of commerce, regional government offices for business and consultants that specialize in navigating exporting.
But business expansion efforts require resources. Resources many owners complain are at a minimum. In order to expend valuable time learning of and chasing export opportunities, owners would have to delegate some day-to-day duties to others. Others who may not be on current payrolls. Others who cost money business owners cannot spare.
In some instances, expansion requires skill sets the owner or current staff are lacking.
Fortunately, both the federal government and Ontario governments heard the pleas for incentives and programs, in the form of funding to hire much-needed help.
For those SMEs requiring skill sets in science, math, technology and engineering, Ottawa launched a $40 million internship program earlier this year. The national internship program funds 3000 post-secondary students interested in pursuing a career in STEM and skilled trades funds fully paid internships for a six to twelve month period in the hope that business steps forward and hires these students once their paid-for training and learning is complete.
Additionally, the Ontario government created a Youth Ministry and invested a robust $295 million for a Youth Jobs Strategy after the recent election.
Civic Action, in partnering with Premier Wynne’s Liberals, launched a highly practical program that connects youth with the private sector. A private sector that includes SMEs.
Specifically for small business owners with little time or know-how where to seek prospective hires, the Escalator program assists in posting job listings online. It also provides employer/industry-designed training and internships to close the knowledge gap businesses suggest prevents hires. Further, for those business owners who understand the merit and powerful benefits of mentoring, it connects SMEs with social agencies that have actual mentoring programs for youth in their respective communities.
I encourage all business owners to strongly consider the programs listed above. I can tell you from first-hand experience, youth bring vitality, drive, unaffected zeal and potential. They can also offer a fresh set of eyes or knowledge in a specific area, complementing the rest of your team.
In my business career, I mentored and hired many youth for my teams. We typically brought in and paid one or two cooperative placement students per school year. Those placements were mentored and trained from the day they started, and we hired the better ones on a full-time basis in entry-level roles once their studies were completed.
Because we mentored and trained them during their coop time, when they joined us on a full-time basis, they were ready to tackle the expectations of their new roles, much like seasoned staff. Further, they were also expected to take on a role in mentoring the next year’s coop students, strengthening their own leadership skills in the process.
What did I look for in youth, beyond a specialized skill if the specific need warranted it? First and foremost healthy curiosity, both for the new and old. A brightness that cannot be taught, usually exemplified in critical thinking. A strong desire to see things through to the end, demonstrating heart. An expanse of interests. Lastly, thriving on a team in any capacity and community participation.
We’re talking about a culture change in SME ownership thinking. Yes, valuable time will be required to train youth, time that you will insist you do not have. If you’re unhappy with the sales or profit picture of your business, I suggest you cannot afford to continue on a status quo basis.
Investing that time now can net positive contribution to your business on a longer-term basis, rather than short-term costly temporary foreign workers or part-time, contract staff. Most owners don’t capture the net costs, merely the hourly wage differential. Temporary staff are not invested in your business, rarely making the extra effort required in seeing a problem through to its remedy, recognize a business opportunity when they come upon it, or seek efficiencies and reduction in operational costs.
The investments made in full-time employee hires, training and mentoring will pay off in huge dividends. As will a concerted focus on exporting your product or service to global markets teaming with customers currently with unmet and un-serviced demand.
One of the coop students I brought into Sunbeam arrived as a quiet, shy, awkward young man who was whip-smart in numbers and highly driven to assist our new team in our pursuit of turning around a previously poor performing business unit.
Upon graduation, I hired him full-time. Within 8 months, he developed a comprehensive, complex Excel spreadsheet that allowed the entire company to execute the zero-based budgeting model we migrated to.
He noted the inefficient, highly time-consuming current model that took us away from the business, and worked on his own time to develop the new model. We may have taught him the overall business, its challenges, marketing and supply chain aspects, and allowed him the challenges and space to grow, but you cannot teach desire and critical thinking.
The return on this young man, and the many others hired by small businesses I consulted, is measurable by the bottom line, the change in office and business culture, and the time business owners free up to either work on business or personal pursuits.
Lastly, it benefits society by saving the $1 million each unemployed youth costs, be it welfare, healthcare, or lack of buying power. Buying power which SMEs depend upon. Buying power generated from employment. New employment which requires business in an expansionary, investment, market acquisition mode.
In providing accessible mechanisms, the talent pool, training resources, and mentoring avenues, Premier Wynne, and to an extent the federal government, require business, non-profit agencies, and others looking to hire staff to now step forward and engage in Escalator and the federal internship program.
The time for excuses is over. The incentives are on the table. Reach for them and make the difference for your own business.