Recruitment and retention have always been critical issues for public sector leaders in Canada's North; or indeed in any remote location. Chronic vacancies, long delays in filling positions, difficulty in providing advancement opportunities or retaining skilled professionals, and a restriction on succession planning (due to fairness rules about open job competitions) results in a challenging human resource (HR) situation.
Leaders working in the North state that their greatest HR challenges are the remote location and the limited pool of qualified candidates. For example, the population of Nunavut and Yukon are each only about 37,000 people. In the Yukon, less than 10,000 people live outside of the capital city of Whitehorse. One of the solutions to this limited pool of candidates is in recruiting from the South.
However, in doing so, managers must deal with the negative perception that people often have of life in the North. In a country which is almost proud of its cold and nasty weather, it's surprising that the prospect of relocating to a remote and frozen part of Canada doesn't hold much appeal. To say that you work "north of 60" is to make people pause and really consider what that means. The first things they envision are isolation, desolation and darkness. On further consideration, they may think of what is not available: Tim Horton's, Starbucks, good restaurants, and a varied social life or school selection. Certainly, there is the high cost of living. Sounds pretty discouraging doesn't it?
If you ask northerners why they choose to live in the North, or in any remote community for that matter, you get a very different picture. For them, it's all about community and connection; lifestyle and the access to the outdoors; and opportunity and adventure. Also, there are professional opportunities available in the North that might not be possible elsewhere, particularly for people at the early age and stage of their professional careers. For example, young professionals are able to work at jobs that provide a wide scope and level of responsibility that would otherwise take them many years to achieve in the South. At the other end of the career spectrum, mature professionals have a wealth of experience to bring to the North. While they may not be as appreciated in the South, the North recognizes the value of their knowledge, skills and long-term experience. This is particularly true in terms of governance, which is new and evolving in the Canadian North. When they transfer their knowledge to local professionals, they contribute to building the foundation for effective government.
What are the critical pieces that contribute to challenges in Northern and remote location recruitment and retention? Whether we are talking about Nunavut or about remote communities of Western Australia, employers face a very similar scenario. In interviews conducted by DPRA with Northern professionals, there were four key issues that were common to all situations: housing, access to training and development opportunities, limited access to services (in smaller communities), and social and lifestyle issues.
Curtin University of Technology conducted research in 2007 in remote areas of Western Australia, and found that the lack of housing, unavailability of training and higher educational facilities, and the limited range of health services available (especially for those with younger children or with chronic health problems) were barriers. These are real and tangible issues that are very tough to solve. Working on them requires policy, funding and systemic changes. However, changing perceptions and creating opportunities is something that individual hiring leaders can control and change.
What are some practical solutions for government employers?
1. Create flexible work arrangements. Be open to ideas such as job sharing, tele-work, lieu-time, or reduced time arrangements. Motivation research has shown that employees value the intangibles such as time off and flexibility more than they value increased compensation. This can be particularly important to Northern cultures where family and traditional pursuits are paramount.
2. Focus on the family. MY research has indicated that the inability for the candidate's partner to secure a job is frequently a deal-breaker in recruiting professionals to the North. Most relationships consist of two working partners, and the partner having employment can influence a candidate's decision to consider Northern employment. Additionally, lack of childcare facilities creates family challenges and stress. Employers who can provide on-site childcare have a distinct advantage over others and Northern employers are well advised to explore the possibility of offering such services.
3. Develop career plans and growth opportunities. A key retention strategy is to help employees to envision their future and to provide the tools for them to achieve it. Developing a career plan helps them to identify opportunities for growth and career trajectory within the organization. The plan is a structured way forward which is tied to the individual's skills and behavioural assessment, identification of skills gaps, a training and development plan, identification of milestones and clear outcomes.
4. Facilitate access to IT resources. Those living in remote and Northern communities find that the ability to stay in touch with friends, family and professional colleagues alleviates feelings of isolation or separation. The challenge will be availability and high cost of internet access in certain geographic locations. Employers should consider providing financial assistance to employees in those circumstances.
5. Build your brand. Employment in Government is an excellent career option for many professionals, yet it often does not conjure up a positive image of a dynamic and progressive environment. In my article published in the Huffington Post, I discussed how government should take a page from the private sector and build an "employer of choice" brand. Government human resource departments have to cultivate marketing savvy in order to compete with private sector offerings. Speaking to the needs of many workers to make a difference in people's lives is something that government can do in ways that the private sector cannot. This is a proposition that can hold great appeal to employees. It is something that government employers need to stress in their recruitment efforts.
6. Provide professional development opportunities. Training and development opportunities are often difficult to arrange in Northern and remote communities. Typically, it requires the employee to travel outside of the community to a larger centre. The time and cost involved is one of the reasons these opportunities are rarely provided, but they are of great importance in retention strategies. Creative delivery options such as virtual training, distance learning, mentoring and professional support are other options worth considering.
7. Use personal networks. As with any recruitment effort, a personal network is very powerful and can deliver candidates who may not actually be searching for employment. Being proactive about the search, and using your network to directly contact candidates or to disseminate information about an employment opportunity can be more effective than formally advertising the position. Networking allows the employer to provide context and colour to the opportunity, heading off any questions or concerns that candidates may have.
8. Focus on intrinsic rewards. We are no longer working in a "nuts and bolts" or "widget producing" economy and nowhere is this more relevant than in government. Delivery of government services relies more and more on knowledge workers. With constraints on funding and budgets, innovation and creativity are more critical than ever. Experience counts as does a working environment that fosters agility and open thinking. Both younger and older workers are demanding meaning in their working lives, and employers who can provide that have an advantage in both recruiting these workers and in retaining them as well.
If you find yourself competing with southern employers who seem to have more to offer potential candidates, it is important that you look to the intangibles as your unique differentiator. Providing rewarding and meaningful work experiences, focusing on the intangible rewards, ensuring structured career planning with professional development opportunities, focusing on the family and developing a compelling marketing message are strategies that government employers need to consider if they hope to build their Northern workforce.