The year in HR

A look back at what made the news in 2006

The much-talked about labour shortage began to rear its head and HR practitioners chimed in on the importance, or lack thereof, of HR designations. We’ve searched the 2006 archives to put the year in perspective.

Labour shortages

If the impending labour shortage is as bad as predicted, HR practitioners might look back on 2006 as the year it got its foothold. The shortage has already sparked creativity among employers. A remote mine in Quebec that was having trouble attracting and retaining workers decided to turn to the local population and train them to do the work, at a cost of about $1 million per year. (Oct. 9, article #4734.) But many employers are stumbling when it comes to training the workers they need, particularly when it comes to apprentices. A study found that only 18 per cent of organizations are hiring apprentices, despite the fact there are currently 20,000 unfilled skilled trades positions and an anticipated 1.2 million by 2025. (May 22, article #4475).

Canadian cities are battling each other to recruit and retain the workers they need. Readers of a Winnipeg newspaper were treated to a 20-page-plus insert, touting all the benefits of moving to a booming Calgary (Feb. 13, article #4259). A group of business leaders in Montreal held a summit to discuss ways to promote itself so it doesn’t become a casualty in the war for talent (Dec. 4, article #4873.)

Frustrated by a delay to get all provinces and territories on the same page when it comes to interprovincial trade and labour mobility, British Columbia and Alberta took matters into their own hands. More than 60 professional and trade standards will be recognized or harmonized between the two provinces as part of an agreement. (Oct. 23, article #4771.)

Immigration has traditionally been thought of as a panacea for labour shortages, but that might not be the case. While meeting labour needs appeared to be the top immigration priority for Stephen Harper’s government (March 13, article #4315), researchers found many immigrants aren’t sticking around when they get here. And the most desirable ones — business professionals and skilled immigrants — are the most likely to leave. (March 27, article #4350.)

Alberta made headlines throughout the year with its severe labour crunch. Alberta’s experience could be a sign of things to come for the rest of the country, and recruiters there are responding by being speedier, more decisive and more flexible in going after workers. (Nov. 20, article #4830.)

Diversity

The question of how to integrate people of different backgrounds in the workplace is increasingly a concern for HR professionals. Certain workplaces are particularly challenging for women. The fire department in Richmond, B.C., for one, was grappling with allegations of harassment from four women (Aug. 14, article #4613). Harassment, discrimination and job-market exclusion are more severe for other minority groups. Women of visible minority face not just sexual harassment but racial harassment as well (April 10, article #4375). Gays, lesbians and transgender people still fear that coming out at the workplace will jeopardize their careers (June 19, article #4526). For Aboriginal women, the experience of exclusion runs even deeper, with Aboriginal women earning $13,300 compared to the $19,350 earned by non-Aboriginal women. This disparity prompted a couple of conferences last year on the need to create meaningful work for women in their communities (Sept. 25, article #4702).

In the face of these challenges, some employers are rethinking how they recruit and welcome people from different backgrounds. As part of its effort to become an employer of choice for all, Ottawa’s Police Service has conducted a census of its workforce to better understand its needs (Aug. 14, article #4612). And to make sure it wasn’t missing out on good applicants, the Canadian Forces worked on replacing its height requirements for pilots — requirements that 50 to 60 per cent of women typically failed. Instead, the forces turned to technology and commissioned a computer model that can accurately predict who will and won’t fit into a particular cockpit (April 24, article #4406).

Healthy workplaces

A number of governmental policies and programs were under scrutiny last year, starting with the federal compassionate care program. Initially estimated to benefit 270,000 Canadians each year, it was revealed that less than 4,000 claims were approved between April 2004 and March 2005 (Jan. 30, article #4234). In June, eligibility rules were broadened so that it’s not only parents, children or spouses who can take advantage of the program. Now, workers can take time off to care for a dying brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, in-law, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, foster parent, ward, guardian or someone who considers the employee to be like family (July 17, article #4569).

Provincial bodies stepped up their enforcement efforts on health and safety issues. In Alberta, an extra $2 million was set aside to hire nine more workplace inspection staff and to work with employers to implement formal health and safety management programs. And in Ontario, the hiring of 131 new health and safety inspectors resulted in 14,649 fewer lost-time injuries (Oct. 9, article #4733).

Workers’ compensation boards continued to battle unsafe practices. In their efforts to raise awareness about risks at the workplace, some boards opted for disturbing, visually graphic ads to try to shake people out of a sense of complacency or, as Steve Mahoney, chair of Ontario’s compensation board put it, “ratchet things up and be more provocative” (Nov. 6, article #4775). However, workers’ compensation boards themselves were the subject of much criticism, with injured workers and even employees complaining that the system poorly serves those who’ve been injured (Sept. 25, article #4687 and Dec. 4, article #4872).

Benefits and pensions

It was a busy year on the pension front. In the spring, the federal budget contained temporary relief measures for solvency funding (May 22, article #4470). Among the measures available to federally regulated employers is the use of letters of credit (June 5, article #4506), which was also made an option for Alberta employers (Dec. 4, article #4874). The issue may come up in Ontario as a commission headed by former law school dean Harry Arthurs reviews the province’s pension system, focusing in particular on funding and surplus distribution rules for defined benefit plans (Dec. 4, article #4874).

Concerns about the viability of pensions aren’t unique to Canada. In the United Kingdom, the Turner Commission issued its recommendations for reform, including a pension scheme with automatic enrolment (and an opt-out provision) for all workers not covered by a work-based plan (March 27, article #4338). A review of Canada’s system remains a necessity, as statistics point to a growing gap in retirement savings between the rich and the poor. A two-parent family in which the husband was 35 to 54 years old and in the top 20-per-cent income bracket saved on average $11,300 a year in 2003, up from $8,000 in 1986. In the lowest 20-per-cent income bracket, however, a comparable family saved only $1,200 in 2003, the same level as in 1986 (Oct. 23, article #4767).

In terms of benefits, the year saw concerns raised about the backdating of stock options for executives and whether it could take place in Canada (Sept. 11, article #4665). It also found benefits advisors raising eyebrows over the decision by meat-packer Lakeside Packers to offset benefit costs by adjusting salary scales (Jan. 30, article #4235).

HR’s role

HR professionals continued to work on gaining stature in the business world, as was in evidence when Canadian HR Reporter surveyed its readers on their pursuit of professional designations. Three in four respondents said they either had or were working towards the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation (Sept. 11, article #4667). About the same share of respondents — 76.9 per cent — considered the designation crucial in an HR career, but when asked on what criteria they would recruit HR professionals, most said “relevant experience” (Sept. 11, article #4654).

As for those working to learn skills and develop the profession through associations, achievements in 2006 included the naming of Florent Francoeur, head of Quebec’s HR association, as head of the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations (Aug. 14, article #4608). Also, Ontario’s HR association showed its lobbying potential by successfully convincing the province to exempt its members from new regulations for paralegals (Oct. 23, article #4772). In the West, training and development professionals demonstrated their desire to network and learn from each other, as seen in the 77-per-cent growth of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development (Dec. 4, article #4863).

However, HR professionals are still hearing a call for them to play a more strategic role in organizations (May 8, article #4441). They’re also hearing that employer branding, employee engagement and ethics are emerging as issues most important to HR leaders (July 17, article #4574).

Workforce planning

Canadian employers still grapple with ways to meet the needs of specific demographic groups. Due to family responsibilities and greater financial constraints, women make up only one-third of MBA students, raising concern they will continue to be under-represented in the business world for another generation (July 17, article #4567). Also, due to family responsibilities, women are dropping out of the labour force in greater numbers in Alberta than elsewhere. One of the reasons behind this decline is a corresponding drop in the number of supervised daycare spaces (Sept. 25, article #4705).

Another challenge facing organizations is how to cope with the mass retirement of baby boomers. In a Conference Board of Canada survey, 80 per cent of executives said their businesses will feel the impact in five years or less, but seven in 10 said they’ve done little to retain mature workers (Aug. 14, article #4611). This lack of preparation is also seen in the higher echelons of organizations, according to another Conference Board report. For every two senior executives, there’s only one job-ready successor. And these successors aren’t being groomed among a younger set. On average, the successors are only two years younger than the executives (July 17, article #4568).

Employment law

One of the biggest bombshells of 2006 had its roots in 2005 when an Ontario court awarded Kevin Keays, a former Honda worker who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, $500,000 in punitive damages for the way the automaker treated him. In 2006, the Ontario Court of Appeal reduced the punitive damages to $100,000, still a very high award for such damages in an employment law case. The much talked about case could have long-term, expensive repercussions for misbehaving employers. (Nov. 20, article #4831).

Employers also received a jolt from a jury in Nova Scotia that decided to award 48 months in Wallace damages — an extension of the reasonable notice period in wrongful dismissal cases designed to punish employers who handle the termination in a callous manner — to Wendy Jessen, an employee of CHC Helicopters who was fired without cause. The province’s Court of Appeal said 48 months was simply too much, and slashed it to nine months, still a relatively high amount. It also weighed in on the question of whether or not Wallace damages should be subject to mitigation. Its answer? No. (Sept. 11, article #4659).

Drug testing was a hot issue, highlighted by a decision by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision that said Kellogg Brown and Root’s pre-employment drug-testing policy breached the province’s human rights legislation. An employee tested positive for marijuana use but was already on the job by the time the results came back. He was subsequently let go. The ruling didn’t put an end to the idea of pre-employment drug testing, but it gave employers pause about whether or not they wanted, or needed, to do it. (July 17, article #4572.)

Privacy issues continued to make headlines throughout the year. It began with a look at a case involving Telus’ voice recognition password technology that defined a “reasonable person” test (Jan. 16, article #4204), included a look at how organizations are using technology to monitor employees (June 5, article #4498) and wrapped up with a review of the federal privacy legislation. (Dec. 18, article #4884).

On the legislative front, smoking at work in the most populous provinces became a lot harder as Quebec went smoke free (June 19, article #4524) and Ontario followed suit (June 5, article #4500).

Industrial relations

Manufacturers of picket signs were kept hopping, as the time lost to work stoppages in 2005 hit a 15-year high, fuelled by high-profile disputes such as Telus and CBC (Sept. 11, article #4662). But despite the spike in work stoppages, unions appear to be losing clout. The union movement represents an older segment of the workforce, and they haven’t had much success in getting their feet in the door in the growing service sector. (Feb. 13, article #4254).

British Columbia found labour peace can be bought, as it poured $1 billion into incentives for its public-sector unions to hammer out collective agreements by a deadline. (July 17, article #4575). Voisey’s Bay Nickel Company got creative in putting together a collective agreement that put Aboriginal workers first, turning the bastion of unionization — seniority — on its head. Aboriginals who aren’t even employees actually have a leg up on workers with seniority. (Nov. 6, article #4802).

Foreign workers also made headlines in labour relations, as 45 workers brought in from Latin America to work on Vancouver’s Canada Line rapid transit system joined a union. (Aug. 14, article #4614).

Taking sides

Canadian HR Reporter’s Insight pages turned into a battleground on a number of important topics with the introduction of Taking Sides — a lively debate about important issues. In 2006, Jack Layton, head of the New Democratic Party, squared off against John Mortimer, president of the Canadian LabourWatch Association, on banning replacement workers during a strike (Oct. 23, article #4747).

Other topics included whether Alberta’s labour shortage is a doomsday scenario (July 17, article #4554) and whether hiring temporary workers is unethical (Dec. 4, article #4845.)

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