A top young prospect, a seasoned veteran and a high performer

Celebrating Excellence awards handed out to 3 Alberta HR professionals

While hard-working and laser-focused on her goals, it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Jillian Walker as simply another ambitious gen-Y professional.

This year’s winner of the Rising Star Award from the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA) has always done things her own way. In high school — a time when most kids flip burgers for cash — Walker worked as a teller at Scotiabank. By the time she was 21, she was managing a team of 18 tellers. Now 26, she’s the healthy workplace co-ordinator at the City of Calgary, a broad role that includes facilitating fitness and wellness programs for 15,000 employees and organizing an annual wellness fair at the Telus Convention Centre.

The Rising Star Award is given to an HRIA member with less than five years’ experience in the field and is one of three annual awards given by HRIA through its Celebrating Excellence awards program. In its fourth year, the program recognizes talent among HRIA’s 4,000 members and draws attention to the contributions of human resources as a profession, said Esther Kim, manager of member relations at HRIA.

“For this year especially, the list of nominees was quite impressive. It was quite a difficult decision to select the winners out of so many high-quality nominees,” she said.

Walker discovered HR as a student at Calgary’s Mount Royal College.

“HR was the one class I really excelled in,” she said.

After finishing her business diploma, she was hired by the city and began her career working in recruitment before being moved to compensation for a special project, and then hired into her current role. As the healthy workplace co-ordinator, Walker facilitates a broad range of wellness perks for employees, including inexpensive lunch-hour fitness opportunities for staffers, free workshops on wellness topics and, of course, the annual wellness fair, which brings in more than 50 exhibitors and draws about 3,500 employees.

Walker’s star is clearly on the rise. On top of working in this challenging role full time, and studying full time to complete a university degree, she entered a national business plan competition earlier this year and placed fourth in all of Canada. Hosted by Hamilton’s McMaster University and the Strategic Capability Network, Focus 2040 asked students across Canada to predict the world of work in the year 2040. As a top-10 finalist, Walker travelled to Hamilton to give a 20-minute presentation to a panel of business executives. Unlike many of the other participants, Walker chose a research project of an academic paper. She conducted focus groups of gen-Ys and gen-Xs to find out how they saw the future.

Though she didn’t win, the experience changed her outlook.

“It gave me more clarity as to where I best fit,” she said.

Ultimately, Walker sees herself in training and development. And the HRIA award gives her confidence in her ability to reach her professional goals, she said.

“To have the recognition of the HRIA community and be recommended by my peers and have the City (of Calgary) back my nomination meant the world for me. It only confirmed that I’m going in the right direction,” she said.

Distinguished Career Award: David Knudson

Walker wasn’t the only City of Calgary employee to be recognized by this year’s HRIA awards. HR business partner David Knudson was awarded the Distinguished Career Award for his decades of service to the profession.

Knudson served as HRIA president from 2005 to 2008 and HRIA conference chair from 2007 to 2010. He began his career in 1989 after earning a business diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and a psychology degree from the University of Calgary.

“(HR) was a good blend of those backgrounds,” he said.

Much has changed in the field since he began.

“One of my first jobs was manually writing salary indexes on cardexes,” he said. Of course, these days, employee demographic information is managed with sophisticated software systems

“We were also called ‘personnel’ back then. I lived through the time of... the re-branding to ‘human resources’ and updating our value proposition and services we provided,” said Knudson. Now, HR is “a strategic partner at the management table.”

Knudson has spent much of his career in the public sector. Prior to working at the City of Calgary for the last 15 years, he worked for the Calgary Health Region. While Calgary is home to many energy firms, he purposely sought out the public service.

“There’s more opportunity to make a difference and have an impact on individuals,” he said.

Award of Excellence: Jenny Cruickshank

Unlike Knudson and Walker, Award of Excellence recipient Jenny Cruickshank didn’t seek out a career in HR — the profession found her. After finishing a bachelor of arts at the University of Toronto in 1999, she travelled to the Netherlands where she found a job at an England-based recruitment company.

“My job was to recruit IT professionals from around Europe to move into roles in the Netherlands,” she said.

It was a challenge she enjoyed until the bottom fell out of the IT sector after Y2K. But by then, Cruickshank was ready to return to Canada.

In the years to follow, she earned an HR diploma in human resources management at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. She then found a job creating a human resources department at a family-run greenhouse in Mount Brydges, Ont., which had grown from 25 employees to 200 through an acquisition.

“It was definitely where I decided that HR was a good career for myself because it was so varied and there were so many strategic business decisions,” said Cruickshank.

From there, she went on to work at Home Depot in Sarnia, Ont., before heading to Calgary in 2008 to take a job at Home Depot as a district talent manager.

It’s a broad role that includes recruitment, retention and succession planning but, ultimately, her job comes down to “How do we strategically place ourselves so we’re a successful company?” she said.

Though still quite new to her career, Cruickshank said she knows she’s chosen the right field: “I think HR represents a strategic pillar alongside finance and strategic business development.”

It’s also a people-oriented profession.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing people get to the spots they want to get to,” she said.

HRIA’s Award of Excellence is Cruickshank’s first industry award and came as a surprise to the Ontario native.

“I was really flattered that my company would nominate me for that because they think my contribution is important,” she said. “I feel privileged just to be nominated and certainly surprised to have won.”

Caitlin Crawshaw is an Edmonton-based freelance writer.

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