Federal public service threatened by poor recruitment

The federal public service is heading for a severe staffing crisis and nobody seems willing to lead the charge to avert it, the Auditor General of Canada reports.

“This looming workforce crisis will leave the public service with professional and management positions that will be difficult to fill in an increasingly competitive environment,” Denis Desautels wrote in his report to Parliament presented last month.

The government must act immediately to improve recruitment in the public sector or risk declining service levels, he said. The public service is facing an imminent bulge in retirements, but the audit conducted by his office revealed serious problems in the recruitment programs designed to fill the holes retirees will leave behind.

On top of that, it appears many hiring managers haven’t yet recognized the urgent need for action and the audit found responsibility for recruitment is fragmented with the result that nobody has yet taken ownership of the problem to drive toward a solution.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) of the Treasury Board Secretariat maintains only an advisory role for recruitment in the federal public sector, while much of the responsibility for staffing has been delegated to individual departments. The audit team wants this to change.

“We believe that if central agencies keep waiting for departments to act and departments keep waiting for direction and support from the central agencies to act, the recruitment priority will not be managed in a strategic and proactive manner.”

Aside from the change in strategy, the audit team also called for improvements to programs themselves.

In particular, auditors examined the post-secondary recruitment program, the main vehicle used to fill entry-level positions. New graduates must be brought into the public service right away in order to fill the leadership positions that will come open in the next seven years. “It takes an average of 10 years to move from a professional entry level to an executive level. Recruitment has therefore become urgent to ensure a well-functioning public service in the future,” said Desautels.

By 2008, 70 per cent of all executives in the public service will be able to retire. The two primary pools of potential replacements have a similar retirement profile (see chart page 1). And the younger workers, those that will be expected to fill the void are underrepresented.

The audit team found the program designed to bring university graduates into the public service is both inefficient and ineffective.

Both the Treasury Board Secretariat and the PSC say they do recognize there is a problem and are trying to correct it.

“We agreed with the findings of the Auditor General,” said Denise Amyot, director general of recruitment programs with the PSC. The report’s findings are in line with the commission’s own conclusions about improving recruitment, Amyot added.

Among the problems highlighted by the audit:

•forecasting of recruitment needs is not clearly spelled out and without a clear idea of the number and type of employees needed, it is difficult to develop appropriate strategies;

•in light of increased competition for university graduates, the PSC (which oversees staffing) needs to be a more aggressive recruiter and do a better job of promoting the public service;

•very few departments participate in the program;

•the PSC does not keep inventories of qualified candidates; and

•the program hasn’t been evaluated in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

Since the 1999 speech from the throne when the government indicated recruitment and retention would take on a new urgency for the federal public service, a number initiatives and programs have been launched to improve and modernize the government’s efforts.

“We’ve already taken a number of steps to change the post-secondary recruitment campaign,” Amyot said.

A renewed effort to attract applicants resulted in nearly twice as many applications submitted from the winter 2001 campaign compared to last year.

Like a large number of employers in the private sector, the federal government has gone online to recruit applicants. Overhauling its online job board site (www.jobs.gc.ca) to streamline the application process. Rather than searching through lists of job openings, a potential applicant now indicates an area of expertise and possible job matches are called up from the database.

“It is a big change for students and we have been receiving very good feedback,” said Amyot. An applicant can also register and be contacted through e-mail if another position opens up.

And while the audit found departments weren’t using the recruitment program, the PSC proactively contacted the departments to see if they were interested in participating in the most recent campaign, which wrapped up early last month. While just eight of 75 departments participated last year, 17 took part in the most recent campaign.

Each department takes care of its own hiring, but the PSC has created inventory programs to generate a pool of qualified candidates in certain high-demand occupations like HR or information technology.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the government has realized that there has to be a concerted effort on recruitment,” said Glynnis French, of the human resources branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat. However it will take time to change the culture that developed during the downsizing of the mid-’90s, she said. A process that only began in earnest with 1999’s speech from the throne.

But, the audit team believes not enough is being done. “We continue to find a clear lack of co-ordination and direction is dealing with the government’s recruitment priority partly because of unclear roles and responsibilities,” the report states.

They’ve know this was coming for 10 years but there still isn’t any co-ordinated strategy to fix the problem, said Claude Brunetter, a member of the audit team. And even though the government said in the speech from the throne in 1999 that recruitment would become a priority, it is still not managing it like one, he said.

“It is still a very reactive process but they need to develop a proactive strategy,” he said.

“The whole co-ordinated approach to deal with this is not there.”

The inventory programs need to be expanded and recruitment of graduates needs to be ongoing rather than just twice-a-year campaigns. An initiative the PSC hopes to begin this fall, said Amyot.

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