HR not immune from the labour shortage (Guest commentary)

Alberta’s hot labour market makes HR practitioners a very valuable commodity

For many organizations in Alberta, the term “labour shortage” has been part of every manager’s professional vocabulary for some time. The construction, oil and gas and service sectors have been in the spotlight because they are the most visible signs of the labour shortage. Within organizations, the front line positions tend to be experiencing the greatest labour rotation and receiving the greatest attention because they are the revenue generating roles.

But one of the untold stories is that HR departments themselves are struggling with their own challenges when it comes to stable labour. Many HR departments in Alberta are experiencing all the symptoms of the labour shortage: high turnover, increasing workloads, increasing demands and, naturally, near-dry applicant pools.

But how could this be? HR is the champion of retention in organizations. They help others retain their talent. While it seems a contradiction that HR is experiencing high turnover, there are some reasons behind the problem.

Transferrable skills

The profession and the skills it demands are very universal. An HR professional in the construction industry can easily transition to an HR role within the oil and gas industry. So the mobility of the profession makes the opportunities fairly extensive.

HR professionals are desired by organizations. The labour shortage has made an effective HR department a huge competitive advantage when it comes to dealing with the talent acquisition and retention challenge.

Playing catch-up

The demands on HR professionals are also increasing quite rapidly. All of the terminations, promotions, pay raises and filing resulting from labour mobility are increasing with turnover and expansion. That, along with the increased strategic demands to address retention, talent acquisition and employee engagement, are leading to increasing burnout and displeasure with coming to work.

HR practitioners aren’t working to get ahead — they’re working to be less behind. And that’s not good. When HR administration is overwhelmed, service to clients is diminished and important details such as accurate and timely filing and record keeping start to become less of a priority. The exposure to risk for an organization can be substantial.

Building relationships

Where the labour shortage impacts human resources most is in the critical medium through which an effective HR department adds value: relationships with clients. Effective HR professionals build strong professional relationships with their clients, which allows the human resources department to better influence organizational behaviours and ventures. Basically it makes HR a partner. But when the HR department is rapidly turning over staff, these relationships never develop or are diverted. This can be the most significant threat to HR in the labour shortage. No relationship means no support, no support means no influence and no influence means no value.

You may wonder what I meant by the relationship being “diverted.” When a strong relationship is developed between an HR professional and a client, that relationship continues to exist beyond the employment of the HR professional. I have seen that relationship used to draw talent away from a previous employer to a competitor. This is especially debilitating when the talent departs from a key position with two weeks’ notice. Couple this with the labour shortage and an organization may find itself in a very uncomfortable situation.

As many organizations are silently experiencing, human resources is far from immune to the effects of the labour shortage. Given the nature of work done by HR talent and the critical role they play in an organization, it would be prudent for organizations to not only focus on the visible effects of the labour shortage. Specific strategies need to be developed and applied to retain HR practitioners. Organizations that are able to successfully retain HR talent will no doubt have an advantage over those who continually bleed them.

Christopher Harper is an HR and managerial consultant with McNeil Group Inc. in Calgary. He can be reached at (403)217-1707 or [email protected].

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