Public service needs to focus on recruiting

Universities gearing up to train students as bureaucrats retire en masse

The public service is facing an extreme shortage of executives in the next six years, with 41 per cent expected to retire by 2012, according to the Public Service Commission.

As the baby boomers leave en masse, the door is opening wide for students in public policy and public administration programs.

“The people going through now have really won the demographic lottery. The opportunities that are going to be available to young people graduating with bachelors and masters in policy and administration are going to be tremendous,” said Bryan Evans, program co-ordinator of public administration at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Universities across the country in general, and Ontario in particular, are gearing up to help students make the most of that opportunity.

There are 19 public policy or public administration programs available at schools across Canada and the number keeps growing. Three years ago, Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University started its masters program and the following year Toronto’s Ryerson University started a masters program in public policy and administration.

In the Toronto area, Ryerson’s program acted as a catalyst for York University to create its own masters program, which should start accepting students in the next year, and for the University of Toronto to revitalize its existing program, said Evans.

“Within the Greater Toronto Area, there is something like 100,000 people working for government directly,” he said. “You have this huge, huge number of people and we weren’t offering one masters program in public administration policy in the whole region. U of T had one, but it was really dying on the vine.”

Both the public and private sectors will be affected when the baby boomers begin retiring in the next few years, but the shortage for the public service will be especially large.

Public servants tend to start young and grow up the ranks and they tend to retire earlier than people in the private sector, said Maria Barrados, the president of the Public Service Commission. Also, the tough economic conditions of the 1990s affected the demographic makeup of the public service.

“The public service didn’t grow, and indeed downsized, in the 1990s. It has a very top-heavy age profile,” said Sandford Borins, president of the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration. “If you look at the age distribution of a lot of public sector organizations, you find very few people under 40. So that means when you get the wave of retirement, there’s very few to take their place.”

If the various levels of government want to compete with the private sector for talent, they will have to do a better job at recruiting students in public policy and public administration programs, according to a new survey of graduate students.

The survey, conducted by Fazley Siddiq, a professor at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, found government recruitment campaigns scored low in terms of their ability to communicate with the target audience and inform students about the kinds of jobs available.

In his study, A Survey on the Recruitment of Graduates of Master’s Programs in Public Administration and Public Policy, Siddiq recommends governments build relationships with all graduate programs, not just the larger ones, inform students about the academic and other requirements of various career opportunities, and improve their advertising campaigns.

“The most effective appeal is the notion of making a difference, of being involved in the most significant issues that affect Canadian society,” said Borins. “They’re not going into it for the big bucks, but they’re going into it for the greater meaning.”

Recruitment campaigns also need to focus on the perks of government jobs, such as stability, good pensions, good benefits and good compensation, said Evans.

For young people looking for a range of experiences, the public service can provide variety and stability.

“You can go literally from highways to global issues,” said Evans. “Where else are you going to have that kind of mobility and never really leave your employer?”

The students in Siddiq’s study were split on their opinions about government using casual positions that could eventually become permanent as a way to recruit. However, Barrados is firmly against the practice.

“There are times when you need casual employment,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be the way that you’re recruiting into the permanent public service.”

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