Looming on the horizon

Comprehensive workforce strategies to prepare for imminent wave of retirements
By Frank Remiz
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/17/2016

Many large organizations, particularly government, are facing somewhat of a crisis as they face an imminent wave of retirements.

Entire ministries, such as Environment and Climate Change Canada, were created in the 1960s and 70s, and this led to large-scale hiring. But, over time, that workforce has aged.

“One in five managers is able to retire in the next three years,” said Deb Matthews, deputy premier of Ontario, in late 2015.

As such, employers should properly prepare for the change and all of its ramifications. The way recruitment is done will need to be revisited. That, in turn, will necessarily affect other HR functions and organizational policies. New approaches will be needed.

Loss of key information

With the retirement of senior managers, there is the obvious loss of hands and feet; how now will the work get done? But there’s much more at stake: There is the risk of loss of information, not only about the job, but the organization, its competitors and the environment.

Effective knowledge transfer is essential; it can be facilitated with communities of practice and emerging custom data storage and retrieval technologies. If retirements are phased in through gradual changes to the workweek or staggered occurrences, it becomes easier to make handoffs, and provide coaching and mentoring to the replacements.

Workforce planning

Faced with multiple vacancies, there is sometimes a tendency to get by with casual workers, term hires, secondments and former employees. Such quick-fix solutions create havoc, especially in unionized environments where people have “bumping rights.” There is also the risk of a good term employee being lured away by another organization into a permanent role.

Comprehensive, long-term workforce planning is key. This requires senior managers to anticipate and be responsive to emerging business needs.

Of course, permanent hires, by their nature, entail some risk. But the probationary period provides space to “try people out.” Managers need to record notes about the person’s performance, capacity to learn, efforts to succeed and ability to integrate — but also be ready to “pull the plug.”

Promotion from within: That is a very good strategy for dealing with retirements. But it requires a good succession planning model already be in place.

Today’s youth

If the talent pipeline is used to fill positions, it must be added to at the front-end. That means providing people with a variety of entry-level opportunities. Summer jobs and co-op placements are excellent opportunities for students to determine whether a government job is suitable for them.

Internship programs for recent, unlicensed graduates in a variety of occupations are also a good idea. The Ontario government has several, ranging from five months to four years, aimed at budding lawyers, civil engineering technicians, policy analysts, First Nations youth and others.

Of course, if these programs are poorly publicized, they won’t be effective; public transit advertising would be worthwhile. In addition, there need to be efforts made to dispel the myths young people have.

Speaking to students in their hometown or holding a travelling one-day job fair would give young people a more informed picture of what it’s like to work for government. And current or former interns could be used for this purpose.

At the end, consider whether there is an effort to collect and compile key feedback from those individuals and their managers. And is there ongoing communication with those individuals, especially when they’re ready for full-time work?

Social media is used widely by young people, not just to share personal updates but to acquire information. It should be used for far more than just posting job openings. Several leading-edge companies have company pages on LinkedIn and Facebook where, through meticulous employer branding, there are postings and videos that reveal the employer’s culture and accomplishments, so as to establish an emotional connection and demonstrate why it is such a great place to work at.

Posting job openings in multiple channels is, of course, important. And if that includes ethnic newspapers, it will capture the attention of recently arrived, skilled immigrants.

In any case, the process for applying for jobs needs to be simple and convenient. At a minimum, it needs to be mobile-friendly.

Job restructuring

Every job vacancy provides an opportunity for job restructuring. Sometimes, certain duties can be added or removed, to better align with business needs and staff deployment. A worksheet should be developed to guide senior managers through the thinking process, and help them choose the right course of action. 

With multi-incumbent jobs, there is a bigger challenge, but also the opportunity for bigger gains. Imagine the dollar savings if governments modified certain roles so that police constables’ data entry work was delegated to clerks, and hospital doctors’ diagnostic work was handled by nurse practitioners.

Replacing a seasoned individual can be difficult. It can be made easier if the job is redesigned to be part-time or mainly work-at-home. Physical proximity is no longer as critical as it was before. Technology has made it possible for people to remain virtually connected with work colleagues. Moreover, more and more government services are delivered to the public online, so the physical location of the service provider is not relevant.

New approaches to selection

Modifying the selection process itself, beyond accommodations, would also be useful. Many traditional methods limit diversity, and yet the business benefits of a diverse workforce are increasingly obvious. When the process of learning about a candidate is made more relaxing, the talents of those who process information (and perceive the world) in a somewhat different way are suddenly revealed — such as those with autism.

Speeding up the selection process would also be worthwhile, even if that means a temporary reallocation of resources. Why should it take more than one month? Video technology could be used to have applicants submit answers to basic questions; recruiters can then quickly review them, assess oral communication skills, get information on job-relevant competencies, and carry out pre-screening.

One way of simplifying the selection process for early-career professionals is to hire a group of broadly capable ones into a pool of generic positions; sooner or later, there will be good opportunities for assignment to particular jobs.

Another approach, increasingly used by governments, is to create inventories or pools of pre-qualified recruits; when there is a particular type of job vacancy, one would draw from the list.

Onboarding

The post-hire orientation program should get new hires maximally productive quickly. That means clearly conveying the role expectations, conducting any training assessments, and facilitating the assimilation of the organization’s strategy and values.

Sometimes, the replacement of someone retiring can provide a fulcrum for change, an opportunity to leapfrog from the past to the future. But that would require careful oversight.

Higher salaries

Some organizations are concerned the market will require them to pay a new hire more or less than the person retiring. It doesn’t need to be like that. Depending on the industry and a company’s market position, one tactic is to hire a somewhat less-experienced person and offer in-house, on-the-job training. Another tactic is to pay a somewhat lower starting salary, but also a sign-on bonus. Still another tactic is to overhaul the pay-and-performance framework so that, beyond a certain point, instead of continued salary increases, there are annual performance bonuses contingent on a rating of “strong” or better.

One thousand, three hundred Ontario government managers requested demotions last year because in many cases their pay had slipped behind that of their subordinates due to a four-year wage freeze, as reported in the Hamilton Spectator. The picture doesn’t look nearly as bad if a total-rewards lens is used — group benefits, training opportunities, career advancement options, community involvement opportunities, and employment stability are all part of the equation. Here’s a bold idea: Negotiate departmental cost savings efforts (from streamlining or productivity  increases), and receive part of the proceeds.

Retention

Good recruitment efforts are in vain if staff retention is poor. Are there meaningful recognition programs in place? Is exit interview information compiled in a way that facilitates case management or recruitment planning? Are the reasons for departure entered into the system, so as to facilitate data retrieval and analysis? Why do the strong performers leave? If there was a poor fit, if the boss’s style was a factor or if morale is low, there needs to be followup to avoid recurrence.

In a changing and competitive business environment, organizations must look critically at, and refine, their approach to workforce planning. The loss of a key employee is a risk that can be fairly easily addressed. The loss of several employees is more disruptive, and harder to deal with. But a comprehensive strategy will help ensure business continuity.

Frank Remiz is a part-time manager at Specialisterne Canada and independent HR consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 537-8886, (416) 509-8857 or fr111@hotmail.com.

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