All in the family at Toronto Hydro

Caring for community and staff sets utility company apart

Toronto Hydro president and chief executive officer David O’Brien boasts like a proud parent when speaking of the 1,500 or so employees who leave the operation centres every morning to go out to work in — and engage — communities.

Communicating better with customers about activities in their neighborhood, such as knocking on doors to explain why Hydro is ripping up the street and how long it will take, is part of the company’s new $1.5-billion “Project Rebuild” initiative, says O’Brien.

“What makes me the most happy is when I get a letter from a customer thanking us — and we get a lot of letters of complaint, as you can imagine — for taking the time to explain what we’re doing,” he says. “Then I know we’ve got the community engaged, and we’ve got understanding that we’re part of a big family that’s out there to make sure the city works.”

“Family” is a word O’Brien uses a lot to describe the type of workplace atmosphere he personally tries to foster at Toronto Hydro. He even takes the time to converse with new hires on their first day.

“I tell them they are becoming part of a family that cares about you and will be with you as part of your career at Toronto Hydro and your entire life,” he says.

The company’s family-oriented values, backed by a good benefits package and high levels of employee engagement that make it a leader in corporate citizenship, are why it’s made Mediacorp Canada’s Top 100 Employers list in 2008 for the third consecutive year.

Having at least one of the 16 senior executives spend one day a week out in the field with a line crew also engenders an “inclusive culture,” says O’Brien. This kind of face-to-face communication is crucial for tackling the pending skills shortage in Canada, he says.

“To me, all this is about ensuring you have the best people working for your company. You’ve got to do everything possible to make sure your company is the kind of place that’s seen as the best place to work because you are really competing for people.”

The company anticipates 600 of its 1,572 employees will retire within the next 10 years — more than one-third of its staff, says Jodi Engle, manager of organizational development and performance at Toronto Hydro. Many of these retirees are within the company’s trades groups.

Since it takes four-and-a-half years for an apprentice to be fully competent in a trade, Toronto Hydro developed its own trade school in 2003. Managed by the Organizational Effectiveness and Environmental and Health and Safety Division (numbering 31 people), the school has become an excellent recruiting tool, says Engle.

The school was recently granted Training Delivery Agent status by the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities, “a recognition the OE division is proud of,” she says.

Since 2003, the company has hired eight overhead power-line apprentices and, by the end of 2008, it will have 104 overhead and underground apprentices to choose from for the 40 or so positions it needs to fill, says Engle.

“We’re also cross-training supervisors so they are not just doing work within functionalities, they are now starting to work across specializations,” she says. “This enhances their skills. It’s a great retention strategy, it gives them more variety and makes their job more meaningful.”

To target young recruits, and help draw students to the electrical trade, Toronto Hydro forges strong ties with schools, universities and the utilities industry to help expand the pool to hire from in coming years, says Helia Ralph, HR services manager at the company.

On the other end of the employee-age spectrum, Toronto Hydro tweaked its health benefits plan to include full coverage for retired employees with no age limit, “to show a welcomeness for an older workforce,” says Helen MacDonald, compensation and benefits specialist at Toronto Hydro. “The fact that we do have a handful of people who are already staying past retirement is a testament to how much employees love working here.”

Indeed the company’s benefits are impressive: top-up payments for new mothers and adoptive parents are up to 95 per cent for 52 weeks; and new fathers receive a paternity top-up payment of up to 95 per cent for 37 weeks.

The company also supports employees’ personal interests by paying their tuition fees for courses at outside institutions, with no annual maximum.

In regular employee surveys, staff rate pride in the organization as high, according to Engle.

“They really care about the organization and that comes through in people’s willingness to participate in the company’s charity work,” she says. For example, Toronto Hydro employees raised $187,000 for the United Way last year.

“People don’t just come to work to work, they come to work wanting to contribute,” she says.

Lesley Young is a Newmarket, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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