Pan Am Games a massive HR undertaking

Committee plans to hire 400 staff, up to 25,000 volunteers
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2011

Organizing and staffing a large, international sporting event such as the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto is quite an undertaking that requires years of planning and forethought. Just ask the former vice-president of HR and sustainability at VANOC, the organizing committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

“Each year, you are dealing with different challenges,” said Donna Wilson. “You need to get the planning done early, decide what the recruiting will look like and backwards plan because your end date can’t change.”

By the time the Vancouver Winter Olympics kicked off last February, VANOC had hired 4,300 full-time, casual and temporary staff and about 23,000 volunteers.

Over the next five years, the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games Organizing Committee (TO2015) plans to hire 400 full-time staff and 20,000 to 25,000 volunteers, said Elaine Roper, senior vice-president of human resources at TO2015.

“We will be doing a slow ramp,” said Roper.

Luckily Wilson, along with other employees from VANOC and other sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games, the Canada Games and the two Pan Am Games held in Winnipeg, are all keen to share their expertise to ensure the Toronto games are a success.

“We’re sharing best practices and lessons learned,” said Roper.

Outnumbering full-time staff 62-to-1, volunteers will truly be the face of the Games, said Roper.

“Volunteers are really going to be a key delivery mechanism for us for the Games,” she said.

Engaging volunteers presents its own unique set of HR challenges and there will be a separate group within the HR department dedicated to volunteers, said Roper.

The biggest issue is the need to start recruiting volunteers about two years before the event, said Wilson.

“That’s a long time,” she said and a lot can change in a person’s life, making him no longer able to volunteer. So Wilson and her team ended up interviewing 30,000 volunteers (with more than double that many applicants) for the 18,000 Olympic and 5,000 Paralympic volunteer spots.

It’s important to decide if the interviews will be done in-person, over the phone or by email. VANOC decided interviews had to be done face-to-face or at the very least over the phone, said Wilson.

Part of that was because of the committee’s vision, mission and values.

“All of our recruiting was done through the lens of those values,” said Wilson.

It’s also important to keep the volunteers motivated and engaged over that time, which can be hard when the work is still a long way off, said Wilson.

To address this issue, a website keeps volunteers up to date on what’s happening with the Games and tells them about training programs, she said.

Luckily, people who work and volunteer at these kinds of events tend to be highly motivated, said Roper.

“They’re passionate about the games and they’re thrilled to be working here,” she said.

To ensure employees and volunteers reflect the diversity of the Greater Toronto Area and the competing athletes from more than 40 countries, the committee will reach out to different organizations to access diverse applicants from different backgrounds, she said.

“We want to make diversity just a natural way that we do business. We are working in the most multicultural city in the world and our games will be very diverse,” said Roper.

The committee will reach out to Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, skilled immigrants, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and other groups who are traditionally under-represented in the workforce, she said.

The Games’ diversity policy extends beyond staff and volunteers to include bids for construction, market research and office supplies. The bidding organizations will be at least partly judged based on how diverse they are.

The committee would also like to see more bids from small- and medium-sized businesses.

“The games will be a great economic opportunity, a great capacity-building opportunity and a heck of a party,” said Roper.

VANOC faced its own recruiting challenges as the economy went from being hot in 2005 to dipping into a recession in 2008 and 2009.

To overcome this challenge, the committee asked local employers to loan employees to the Games for up to four-and-a-half months. The employers continued to pay the loaned employees, who returned with new skills and higher engagement, said Wilson.

While Wilson hopes her counterpart at TO2015 won’t face the same market swings, planning well in advance can help mitigate normal economic ups and downs, she said.

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