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How these 4 businesses tackled the labour shortage through technology

These four companies were facing labour challenges and other barriers to profitability; technology allowed them to do more without needing to hire additional workers

The labour shortage has been tough on Canadian entrepreneurs. Simply put, the number of jobs has been increasing faster than the number of working-age people with the skills to fill them. This has meant fewer applicants for job openings, as well as difficulties finding employees with in-demand skills.

In 2018, 42% of entrepreneurs we surveyed had trouble hiring and retaining employees. That figure had gone up to 61% of entrepreneurs by 2023. And the demographics are such that we do not expect any release of pressure until the end of the decade.

Amidst this crisis lies an extraordinary opportunity for businesses to revolutionize how they deal with their employees to emerge stronger than ever.

Our research reveals that entrepreneurs who invest in technology to empower their people so they spend less time on low-value tasks outperform their peers.

Below are case studies of four business that have leveraged technology and automation to grow despite hiring and retention difficulties.

Automated sorting to kick things up a gear

Samuel Joncas, CEO of Transport RDL

Samuel Joncas, CEO, Transport RDL

Transporting goods involves complex logistics. Transport RDL, a company specializing in temperature-controlled transport, knows all about this.

It used to have to operate two warehouses just to sort the packages it delivers for its customers. But last year, after investing $3 million, the company opened a new hub to replace the two old warehouses.

We need 12 employees to do the sorting. If the work were still done manually, we would need almost four times as many staff.

More capacity, fewer employees

The new sorting equipment enables Transport RDL to sort its packages with fewer employees. It also expands the company’s sorting capacity, without the need for a bigger team.

“We currently sort 1,000 packages an hour, but our new machine has a capacity of 4,500 packages. That’s a volume we’ll be able to handle with the same number of employees as we have now—about a dozen,” explains Samuel Joncas, CEO of Transport RDL.

As for the project’s profitability, Joncas believes it will depend on growth objectives.

“If we run our hub at full capacity, and we manage to increase our volumes in the package market, our investment will pay for itself in 10 years,” he says. “If our volumes remain stable, we’re talking more like 20 years.”

More productive drivers

The automation project has also had benefits in terms of package transport.

“Before, we were at saturation point in our two sorting warehouses,” says Joncas. It was impossible for the company to increase volumes without “breaking” operations.

But automation has boosted the company’s efficiency, allowing it to now sort all its packages in a single warehouse. And this comes with at least one other labour-saving advantage.

“Sorting everything in one warehouse means less transport between our terminals,” explains Joncas. And that translates into a lesser need for drivers, or the potential to reassign drivers to other deliveries.

Thinking outside the box to widen the labour pool

Irfan Rajabali, President of EB Box Company

Irfan Rajabali, President, E.B. Box

Finding a qualified workforce is perhaps the biggest challenge in the carton box industry.

“It’s extremely difficult to find skilled workers to operate the machines in the factories,” explains Irfan Rajabali, President of Richmond Hill, Ontario-based, E.B. Box.

First, there are no schools or technical programs to help workers learn the job. “Training schools have disappeared,” says Rajabali.

Second, big players in the business have stopped training the workforce. They used to offer informal apprenticeships to industry newcomers, but those days are now long gone.

And finally, the older, qualified workers are retiring rapidly. “Most remaining skilled operators are now older than 55 and replenishment is not coming in fast enough,” says Rajabali.

Faced with a tight labour market, E.B. Box decided to invest in tech to broaden its potential labour pool.

Using capital to help labour

E.B. Box invested to make its equipment easier to operate. In total, the company acquired 12 machines to replace or supplement its old factory equipment, including a printing press, a die cutting machine and a sheeter.

“By reducing the level of skill needed, we have widened our potential pool of talent, thus enabling us to scale the business more easily,” explains Rajabali. He compares newer factory equipment to automatic transmissions and parking assist features in cars: By being more user-friendly, they make the technology accessible to more people.

On top of making it easier to find personnel to operate its machines, E.B. Box’s investment has also increased employee satisfaction.

“Having newer equipment helps us to attract and retain talent. Once employees have worked on state-of-the-art machines, they don’t want to go back,” says Rajabali.

Output per employee has also increased as a result, while productivity has increased by 25% to 50% depending on the production line.

Our newer, easier-to-operate machines have allowed us to double production capacity without needing to increase headcount proportionally.

And while the project as a whole cost 10 M$, Rajabali recognizes that much can be accomplished on smaller budgets.

“Tech improvements can happen over time. It’s not necessary to invest in brand new stuff either. Make it an iterative process. Search for gaps, bottlenecks and pain points, and invest your dollars where they’ll deliver top results.”

Using smart software to boost capacity

Sam Hale, co-owner of Nutrimeals

Sam Hale, Co-owner of Nutrimeals

Nutrimeals prepares and delivers a number of different meals to thousands of customers.

To accomplish this feat of food preparation, the company needs to create a precise list of ingredients and steps for every meal, called a production sheet, every single day—no simple task.

To accelerate the process, Nutrimeals has developed a software that accomplishes this task automatically.

“We used to do this with Excel spreadsheets and a number of other software,” says Sam Hale, co-owner of Nutrimeals. “Now, our orders come in through our own internal system. Our app analyses the data to create the production sheets automatically.”

As a result, a task that took 40 hours to accomplish now takes only five minutes.

“With one click of a button, we can now do something that used to take a lot of manual work,” says Hale.

Creating digital expertise

A digital dietitian. This is the second ingenious solution Nutrimeals has developed to accomplish more without needing extra employees.

“Instead of offering a consultation with a dietitian, and having them create a meal plan for you, we developed a number of algorithms that do it automatically,” explains Hale.

To ensure an optimal experience for the user, the app harnesses artificial intelligence: a number of models are used to create the best possible recommendations.

“For instance, the system learns from the users’ preferences,” says Hale. “If they change a meal because they don’t like a certain ingredient, the system will learn from that and make better recommendations in the future.”

This app is a huge opportunity for us and society. One dietitian can typically handle eight consultations in a single day. Our system will expedite the consultation process so we can review over 100 consultation intakes and meal plans in one day.

What were the first steps towards developing this algorithm? Hale explains that Nutrimeals needed first to work with an actual dietitian to get an overview of the process underlying the creation of a meal plan. “Before automating the process, we need to understand it,” says the co-owner. The company then created a survey to build a dataset in order to train the machine learning models.

“Funding a project like this is expensive,” says the co-owner. “So we are very frugal with cash.”

Easing admin work with automation

Esteban Cuevas, owner of Cuevas Holding Group

Esteban Cuevas, General Manager and Executive Chef, Original’s Mexicano Restaurant Group

Running a restaurant is no easy task, and the Original’s Mexicano Restaurant Group runs five of them across British Columbia.

“Restaurant margins are tough, so many in the industry are bleeding money,” observes Esteban Cuevas, General Manager and Executive Chef at the group. He notes that few entrepreneurs make it past the first few years of operation, and according to statistics, he is right: approximately 60% of independent restaurants fail in the first three years.

“It’s a numbers game,” says Cuevas. “And for this reason, we find automation to be an important tool when it comes to admin work.”

Reducing the need for personnel

The Original’s Mexicano Restaurant Group has started using a specialize hospitality software that connects purchasing, recipes, inventory and sales with accounting.

For Esteban Cuevas, it has been a game changer.

We used to need a bookkeeper, which cost us $3,000 per month. Now, we only use the software, which is costing us $600 per month.

Not only has the system reduced the company’s staffing needs, but it has also improved the quality of the work, leading to even more cost savings.

Cuevas explains that one issue he was looking to address was that many mistakes were made in recording transactions.

Produce, for instance, does not incur GST, while takeout containers do. “Our new system breaks down invoices by item, so that if we have produce as well as containers on the same bill from one supplier, every entry will be recorded correctly,” says the General Manager.

As a result, the company now gets $10,000 in GST returns that it was not getting before making the change.

Improved employee satisfaction

The new system, which is used for a number of additional tasks like preparing recipes, was challenging for the staff to learn how to use.

“There was a learning curve,” admits Cuevas. “It took six months of training. But now, nobody wants to go back. The new app makes every task, like creating a recipe, quicker to carry out. It’s like driving a Porsche rather than a 1999 lemon.”

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