The year in HR

Government policies, business imperatives and trends, and the advancement of HR as a profession made for a full year of news at Canadian HR Reporter. We’ve searched the archives to put 2005 in perspective

HR ASSOCIATIONS

It was a busy year for Canada’s HR associations. In June, the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations (CCHRA) held a national forum attended by the heads of Canada’s HR associations and leading members of the HR community. CCHRA president Geneviève Fortier said she would like the forum to be an annual event that gives HR associations an opportunity to identify issues affecting human resource management, allowing the profession to speak with a unified voice when discussing legislation and initiatives with government.

One item that received attention was the need for HR professionals to develop a business mindset that allows them to be proactive partners in strategy rather than passively reacting to changing business climates (Sept. 12, article #3971).

In Saskatchewan, HR professionals formed the Saskatchewan Association of Human Resource Professionals (SAHRP). The new association brings together four separate HR and training and development associations in Regina and Saskatoon. The four had been represented at the CCHRA through a joint council, but found it increasingly difficult to work under such a system. One unified association was deemed essential for conversing with the CCHRA and administering the new standards for the Certified Human Resources Professional designation, explained Yvette Battistolo, SAHRP’s director of communications (Sept. 26, article #3998).

On the West Coast, the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association took operational tasks off the hands of its volunteer board with the hiring of its first CEO, Simon Evans. The new business approach allows for the CEO and his team to focus on member needs, while volunteer board members can concentrate on raising HR’s profile in the business community and government (Oct. 10, article #4020).

On the HR technology front, Canadian HR tech professionals split from the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) to form the new Human Resource Management Systems Professional Association (HRMSPA). IHRIM’s outlook was too American and wasn’t serving the needs of its Canadian members, said HRMSPA president Richard Rousseau (Dec. 5, article #4100). HR professionals can expect to see IHRIM and HRMSPA contend for the hearts, and association memberships, of Canadian HR tech professionals in the coming year.

And while Canada has some new HR associations, it also has an old one with a new name. Canadian Human Resources Planners, a volunteer-run association geared to the interests and needs of senior HR executives, has changed its name to the Strategic Capability Network. The new name better reflects the association’s strategic focus and its relevance to HR leaders and other senior executives, said president Ian Hendry (Dec. 19, article #4161).

BENEFITS

The majority of nearly 1,400 Canadian HR professionals surveyed by Mercer Human Resource Consulting cited pension and benefit cost containment as the top priority for 2005. Benefit costs are increasing by an average of eight to 12 per cent per year. At that rate, benefit costs can nearly double in five years. However, a survey, by consultancy firm Morneau Sobeco, of 252 employers found that just 13 per cent of organizations are considering sharing the cost of health-care benefits premiums with employees (Jan. 31, article #3645).

While employers may be reluctant to institute cost-sharing measures, the majority of employees who took part in an Ipsos-Reid survey are quite amenable to the idea. An overwhelming majority also said they would prefer to retain their benefit plans over extra cash (June 20, article #3885).

Employers have been looking for unconventional remedies to prevent, not cure, rising benefit costs. To meet this need, several of Canada’s benefits providers have moved into wellness and health promotion, offering products and services (such as online health assessments), partnering with other wellness experts and mining claims data for clues about potential wellness solutions (March 28, article #3742).

Employers are also turning to private-sector health-care providers. A single disability claim costs Canadian firms an average of $80,000. Employers paying $30,000 for a procedure at a private clinic in the United States or in Canada can get the employee back to work faster, saving about $50,000 in disability costs. Benefit programs for all employees that cover access to private health care will become more common over the next two to five years, said Daphne Woolf, managing partner of HR consultant firm the Collin Baer Group in Toronto (Sept. 12, article #3975 and Aug. 15, article #3939).

The end of mandatory retirement in Ontario also saw experts advising companies to prepare to deal with the aging workforce; older workers are more expensive to insure because they tend to get sick or injured more often. The smart move will be to start pursuing different work arrangements that are more consistent with this group’s desires and physical and psychological capacities (Oct. 24, article #4060).

PENSIONS

It was a tough year for pension plan sponsors, with many defined benefit plans (DB) in particular struggling to stay solvent. A report by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada estimated that, after indexing, Canada’s DB plans have a combined $190-billion funding shortfall (Dec. 5, article #4153).

While plan sponsors have made record levels of contributions over the last two years and investments have rebounded, plan obligations are growing even faster, a Towers Perrin report shows (Aug. 15, article #3930).

Plan sponsors say government regulations, accounting standards and judicial decisions are all working against plan solvency, combining to discourage employers from offering pensions. Canada is heading towards two pension realities: strong defined benefit pension plans for public-sector workers, and defined contribution pension plans for private-sector employees. That’s if private-sector workers have a pension at all, said Elaine Noel-Bentley, senior director of total compensation at Petro-Canada, and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Canadian Pension Management. Pension stakeholders are working to address issues and harmonize pension legislation across the country, but getting Canada’s governments to agree on policies is no easy task (Nov. 7, article #4088).

WORKER SHORTAGES

Canada’s aging population has sparked concerns about a looming labour shortage across the country, the full effects of which are expected to be felt in the next 10 years. One-third of nurses are eligible to retire in the next five years, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. The profession could lose 30,000 to 64,000 nurses in 2006 alone. Forty per cent of operating room nurses are eligible to retire in five years, as are 30 per cent of cancer care nurses (Jan. 17, article #3618 and June 6, article #3865).

The tight labour market in Alberta has pushed up the average wage by 8.67 per cent from $19.68 per hour in 2003 to $21.39 an hour in 2005. The top 10 occupations experiencing high job vacancy rates include a mix of professional occupations, skilled trades and low-skilled entry-level occupations (Oct. 24, article #4059).

Building a relationship with workers of the future is one way to address the looming shortage. Some oil and gas companies are reaching out to high school students. Calgary-headquartered EnCana is offering the Oil and Gas Production Field Operator Career Pathway pilot program to grade 10 students (April 11, article #3778).

Many new teachers are struggling to find work in Ontario, prompting the Ontario College of Teachers to state that the province’s teacher shortage is over. However, the Canadian Teachers Federation said the shortage is ongoing across Canada, especially in remote communities and in specific teaching specialties such as French, math and science (June 21, article #3881).

The Atlantic provinces have been losing workers to richer provinces for decades. Now, several communities are calling them home. The Prince Edward Island city of Summerside set up an Internet-based matchmaker program in 2005 for local employers and potential recruits, while a two-year-old New Brunswick repatriation program has brought 550 former residents back to the province (Nov. 21, article #4115).

Canada’s mining industry will need up to 81,000 new workers in the next 10 years as the industry grows rapidly and nearly 40 per cent of the workforce retires in the next decade, according to a study by the Mining Industry Training and Adjustment Council this year. “Eighty-thousand — that is a big number. It represents 100 per cent of today’s workforce,” said Paul Hebert, the council’s executive director (Sept. 12, article #3973).

LABOUR STANDARDS AND PAY EQUITY

2005 saw sustained calls for labour standards to be updated, particularly in response to the growing number of people working in part-time or temporary work and hence outside the purview of many existing labour protections. Along with the Law Commission in Canada in 2004, the Ottawa-based think-tank Canadian Policy Research Networks issued a series of papers looking at a number of policy options for vulnerable workers (April 11, article #3782).

In Saskatchewan, business opposition brought down a labour standards regulation that would require employers to give part-time workers additional hours whenever work is available. In response, the government has created a commission looking at part-time work. The commission is expected to issue its recommendations mid-January (Feb. 14, article #3676).

And more prominently, labour law expert Harry Arthurs has been holding consultations and commissioning research as part of the Federal Labour Standards Review. The review questions the extent to which Part 3 of the Canada Labour Code is appropriate for today’s workplace. It will also look at whether labour standards can respond to work-life balance pressures that have grown as a result of demographic changes in the workforce, and whether labour standards can play some role in advancing the country’s human capital strategy in light of the economy’s shift toward knowledge work (Aug. 15, article #3941).

On the pay equity front, a 22-year fight between Canada Post and the Public Service Alliance of Canada culminated in a ruling against the employer to the tune of about $150 million. Quickly proceeding into appeal, this lawsuit served as a reminder of needed changes to the federal pay equity system, which a Pay Equity Task Force in 2004 described as difficult and unwieldy, with cases taking 10 times as long to resolve as other human rights cases (Nov. 7, article #4092).

Calls by the task force for a proactive system, which would place the burden on employers and not complainants to ensure equal pay for equal work is in place, have yet to see the light of day. In response to the task force’s recommendations, the federal ministers of justice and labour have said they require more study. This deferral has prompted criticism from the Canadian Labour of Congress. “We’ve had the consultations, and the studies, and even hearings by a parliamentary committee. What more do they need?” said executive vice-president Barbara Byers (Oct. 24, article #4045).

Other notable legislative developments included a whistle-blower protection bill passed in Saskatchewan (May 26, article #3847); the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which has as objective to make the province fully accessible in 20 years (May 11, article #3817); and the bill to end mandatory retirement in Ontario (June 7, article #3867).

CLOSING THE SKILLS GAP

Improving worker skills continues to be a national preoccupation as economists keep a keen eye on Canada’s productivity levels and employers in certain sectors and regions report difficulty hiring. Employer-sponsored training — averaging $824 per employee or 1.55 per cent of payroll in 2003, according to the Conference Board of Canada — is still much lower than similar levels in the United States ($1,135 per employee or 2.34 per cent of payroll). To promote employer investment in training, the Canada West Foundation has called for federal and provincial governments to give tax incentives to employers (July 18, article #3904 and April 1, article #3753).

The skills gap at the lower level of skills has increasingly garnered attention, particularly as the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey showed that, with four in 10 Canadians not having the literacy level required to do their jobs, Canada has made no improvement in improving basic skills in reading and math. According to a C.D. Howe paper, an investment of one per cent in the lower levels of skills can result in a 2.5-per-cent gain in productivity (Feb. 28, article #3701 and Dec. 5, article #4154).

To help employers assess and train for literacy, numeracy and a host of other fundamental skills called essential skills, public funds have gone into developing tools, such as the Test of Workplace Essential Skills, which measure workers’ skill levels in text reading, document reading and using numbers, as well as the Essential Skills Research Project, which assesses the level of skills required in many occupations (July 18, articles #3897 and #3900).

Leadership development continues to be a high priority for employers, with organizations such as Bank of Montreal and Maple Leaf Foods developing multifaceted plans to broaden and deepen the skills of those on the leadership track (Jan. 17, article #3614), and employers such as Telus and the federal public service exploring action learning programs (April 25, article #3800 and Sept. 26, article #4005) and some employers such as TD Bank investing in career development tools and resources for employees (June 20, article #3875).

FOREIGN SKILLS AND TRAINING

Many newcomers arrive with considerable experience and training, but are unable to find work in their fields and at their levels of qualification. In April and May, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration held hearings into, among other things, why internationally trained professionals have such difficulty finding work in their fields (Jan. 31, article #3649).

However, nothing came out of those hearings prior to the dissolution of Parliament in November.

The problem of under-employment is even greater outside the knowledge sector, according to immigration expert Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto. In his research for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Reitz found immigrants with a post-secondary or post-graduate degree in occupations outside the knowledge sector earned 25 to 34 per cent lower than Canadian-born people with similar credentials (Feb. 1, article #3650).

Part of the problem, according to a Canadian HR Reporter readers’ survey, is the level of business language fluency. That’s why increasingly, instead of attending English as a Second Language classes, new immigrants are signing up for what’s called Enhanced Language Training, which is geared to instruct newcomers in the language of work, with a focus on the language of particular industries and occupations (Dec. 5, article #4135 and June 6, article #3864).

A bigger problem is that recruiters are often not familiar with institutions abroad, and don’t have the time to find out, as Indian-born compensation consultant Sanjay Ray found. To overcome this lack of familiarity, jobseekers such as Ray have found their way in the door through bridging programs — in his case, Toronto’s Career Bridge — that allow employers to assess immigrant candidates at work for a risk-free period (March 14, article #3725).

Staffing firms can also play this role, according to Paul Christie of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services. With the volume of job applicants they place, staffing firms can bring some insight into trends on skill gaps being filled by immigrants, commonalities in in-demand skills from specific areas, as well as issues around academic requirements and false credential scams (Dec. 5, article #4133).

Some employers have developed their own ways to overcome their lack of awareness of foreign credentials. At RBC, recruiters have removed a potential source of bias by no longer requiring job applicants to write down where they received their degrees on application forms. At Husky Injection Molding, the company asked staff who hail from other nations to provide a list of the top schools in their countries of origin, which then became a list of institutions that recruiters started to filter in instead of filter out (July 18, article #3892 and Dec. 5, article #4139).

To help employers recruit immigrants and promote them into positions for which they’re qualified, a number of leading Toronto-area employers are sharing “best practices” on a website started by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. The website, www.hireimmigrants.ca, will also feature online self-assessments to encourage employers to review how they fare on this issue, in terms of awareness and leadership, planning and sourcing, selection, development and inclusion (June 21, article #3086).

HEALTHY WORKPLACES

At the beginning of the year, the federal government appointed former Finance Minister Michael Wilson as special advisor on mental health in the federal workplace. “(The federal government is) the largest employer in the country, and we need to be sure that we are the leader in mental health workplace issues,” Minister of Health Ujjal Dosanjh told Canadian HR Reporter (Feb. 28, article #3699).

Mental illness is an increasing concern amongst employers of all kinds, according to Watson Wyatt’s Staying at Work survey, in which more than one-half of 100 Canadian organizations said the rise in employees’ mental health claims is a top concern. However, the survey showed that most organizations are doing little, if anything, about the issue (May 9, article #3814).

A study by employee assistance provider WarrenShepell found young workers have greater rates of stress, anxiety and depression than their older counterparts. Research also shows that depression-related disability claims cost the workplace upwards of $33 billion a year (March 14, article #3728).

In other health-related news, world leaders and health experts are worrying about the ever-increasing possibility of a flu pandemic and its effect on businesses as officials confirmed the first cases of avian flu outside of Asia this fall. A report by BMO Nesbitt Burns economist Sherry Cooper stresses the importance of continuity planning in the face of a pandemic that could sideline one-third of the workforce (Nov. 7, article #4093).

Improving safety in the workplace was also a hot issue in 2005. The disappearance of 18-year-old Wendy’s restaurant chain employee Jennifer Teague after she left work at 12:30 a.m. gave rise to calls for employers to ensure workers’ safety on their way home or to work. “You’re asking very young kids — most of them under 19 — to leave these places at very late hours when there’s no public transportation,” said Emile Therien, president of the Canada Safety Council (Oct. 10, article #4038).

The Ontario government set up an ergonomics advisory group in March to address the province’s high rates of musculoskeletal injuries. In 2003 alone, there were more than 40,000 musculoskeletal injuries to Ontario workers. The government wants to decrease workplace accidents by 20 per cent, or 60,000, over the next four years. It also plans to nearly double the number of inspectors in the province by 2008 (April 11, article #3763 and Jan. 31, article #3643).

Citing concerns for workplace safety, particularly in the oil-and-gas sector, employers in Alberta are increasingly calling for random and pre-employment drug testing, two types of testing generally considered illegal. While random drug testing is still rare, pre-employment testing is far more common, with employers such as Suncor and Petro-Canada telling job candidates they’ll have to submit to such tests (March 28, article #3747).

Alberta’s booming economy, along with the accompanying labour shortage, has raised other concerns about employees’ health and safety. Kevin Flaherty, executive director of the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre, has been hearing stories of long hours, inadequate supervision and people not properly trained before they’re put on the job (Nov. 21, article #4119).

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