Canadian government tackles demographic crunch

The public sector faces some major challenges in replenishing its aging ranks, particularly in attracting young IT professionals to public service as university enrolments in computer science continue their steady decline.

In the Ontario government, the focus is on demographics and diversity, says Jennifer Laidlaw, director of the I and IT HR Strategic Business Unit, a new group within the I and IT organization created to develop a range of strategies to attract and retain the top IT talent needed to meet its business needs.

Some sobering statistics underscore the need for action in replacing retiring workers. “Three out of four executives will retire over the next 10 years, and in the feeder group behind at lower management levels, 43 per cent are set to retire in that timeframe as well,” says Laidlaw.

On average, public sector workers are older than the private sector: the average age for the government’s middle management group is 48, compared to 38 in the private sector, she adds.

But finding staff for new positions is also an issue. Of the 89,000 IT positions employers will be looking to fill over the next three to five years across Canada, 58,000 of those will be new, not replacement positions, according to a recent Conference Board report.

Laidlaw acknowledges the Ontario government has some challenges attracting young IT professionals. To tackle this, the government is partnering with the Youth and New Professionals Secretariat to develop more outreach programs with universities and colleges, and is looking to increase internships and coop programs.

“Once we get them into the system, they tend to stay – turnover is low,” she says, noting young professionals can get the training they need to move around within the system and pursue their interests in different technologies and program areas.

Mainframe support is an area that will be particularly hard hit by the lack of labour supply, she says. “Only a couple of universities offer computer science programs in mainframes. When we bring those professionals in, there is a lot of specific knowledge they need about our systems and so we need to invest significantly in their on-the-job learning.”

To effectively capture retiring IT workers’ experience before they leave, the government has knowledge transfer processes in place. And people can stay on as employees as long as they choose once they’re able to retire, based on their pension options.

“We have the ability to keep people longer if they choose to stay, because Ontario removed the mandatory retirement age,” she says. “So once people retire, it’s a personal decision based on their pension to stay on or not.”

In addition to building up senior IT skills, the government is also buying them in the labour market with recruiting campaigns targeting experienced mid-career candidates, she says.

On this score, provincial governments could improve their efforts by consolidating their recruiting into comprehensive campaigns instead of doing them on a departmental basis, says David Tighe, VP at OriginHR, a Toronto-based recruiting and retention services provider.

“People typically think of a provincial government as one entity, but it’s really made up of many different ‘companies’ comprised of ministries and agencies that share some services but have different mandates,” he says. “They should promote themselves as one employer of choice instead of different entities.”

The Ontario government is on the road to this type of consolidation, says Laidlaw. “We’re doing it at the executive level, and we’re working on something we can move into the rest of the organization. So when an IT position is posted, it’s within the context of the larger I and IT organization, not just a particular ministry.”

At the larger and more complex federal level, recruiting and mentoring is still proceeding on a piecemeal basis, says one federal civil servant who agreed to share his views anonymously.

“There are thousands of departments, and many don’t get along. Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC), for example, are always having disagreements over who takes care of what piece of legislation. Recruiting and mentoring efforts are sporadic: one department may be doing it aggressively, another not, depending on budgetary capabilities.”

But consolidation of recruiting initiatives is also starting at the federal level, says Ross Macleod, director general of service delivery at Service Canada. The Public Service Commission (PSC), for example, offers one entry point for students and grads into public service. However, he acknowledges there are opportunities for further consolidation in the future.

Coordinating these initiatives across the federal government will be a major task. At Service Canada alone, about 15 per cent of its total 20,000 work force is expected to retire or leave over the next five years, he says. Some of the work will be eliminated as more and more services are automated online and become self-service, such as loading the data needed to file an Employment Insurance (EI) claim.

While there are no formal mentoring programs at Service Canada, there are informal arrangements to take people nearing retirement out of production to download their knowledge, he adds.

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Contact her at

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