Recruiting gets a Second Life

The competition sure is fierce when it comes to landing good young talent these days. Organizations are standing shoulder to shoulder around the global talent pool, trying to hook their share of Gen X and Gen Y keepers. But despite their youth, these new recruits are as wary and tight-lipped as a wily old bass. If you don’t find just the right way to attract them, they won’t give you a nibble.

Like its counterparts around the world, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) knows it must hire a sufficient number of these bright young prospects to stay at the top of its game. But that’s a task that’s becoming harder to do.

Until recently, the VPD always had far more applicants than it had positions, averaging about a thousand applications a year. Holding a job fair, putting an ad in the newspaper, and word of mouth were sufficient to fill any job that came open. Then along came generations X and Y – and with them came significantly different expectations around career advancement, compensation and employer.

“Every police force is in the same situation. Because of the changing demographics in society, the pool of applicants is shrinking,” said Inspector Kevin McQuiggin of the VPD’s Forensic Services Section. “The idea of coming to a police agency and staying for thirty years is foreign to a lot of young people today.”

Yet it’s essential to hire personnel who are willing to stay for the long haul. It takes new recruits two to three years to become fully productive; front line officers average three to five years service; while investigators usually have 15 to 20 or more years of service. No wonder some are calling the law enforcement recruiting shortage a crisis.

When it first began to experience a hiring crunch, the VPD decided to cast a wider net for applicants and do some international recruiting. It had some success with this tactic, but with police agencies around the globe competing for the same small group of applicants, it soon became apparent that a different approach was needed.

“We needed to do things differently, and with the changes going on in society we wanted to attract a new class of applicants,” said McQuiggin.

“We also wanted to differentiate ourselves and give applicants a reason to choose the Vancouver Police rather than other agencies.”

That’s when the VPD came up with an innovative idea. As the new frontiers of the Web have become a second home to Generations X and Y, why not use these new frontiers as a means of recruiting?


Kevin McQuiggin is a computer guy from way back. He specialized in computing and mathematics at Simon Fraser University and cut his teeth on mainframes that used punch cards and paper tape. The 26-year veteran of the VPD spent nearly four years as the force’s IT director before moving to the Forensic Services Section, which includes units for investigating all manner of high-tech crimes. But even though he’s spent the last four years on the operational side of the Department now, he still has IT in his blood.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s happening on the Web and I’m always exploring new technologies as they come out,” he said. “When I heard about the virtual reality world of Second Life I thought it sounded interesting and gave it a try about a year and a half ago. It’s a great application for meetings, collaboration and communication, and it occurred to me that we should try holding a recruiting seminar in this environment.”

Created by Linden Research Inc. of San Francisco, Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world that largely mimics our own. Millions of people around the globe participate in it, creating avatars that act as their persona, interacting with others, buying and selling goods and services using Linden dollars (which can be exchanged for real currency), and even acquiring virtual land, where they can build, live and entertain.

McQuiggin reasoned that holding a virtual recruiting seminar in Second Life would be a good way to differentiate the VPD from other law enforcement agencies and reach out to tech-savvy young applicants. “Tech-savvy police officers are key to the success of future investigations. As society changes, policing has to change as well,” said McQuiggin. “We’re going to have to have more officers that understand Facebook, YouTube, instant messaging and all these technologies because crime will naturally migrate to these environments, just like it has with things like fraud on the Internet.”

As in most other organizations around the world, these new technologies are not well understood by senior management at the VPD, and selling the idea of a virtual reality recruiting seminar wasn’t easy to do. Adding to the difficulty was the lack of experience by recruiters in new technologies, and lack of expertise in this area in the IT department.

Fortunately the VPD’s Chief Constable, Jim Chu, had a solid background in technology and was quite supportive. A past Chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Informatics Committee, Chu argued convincingly for the increased use of IT in all aspects of policing in his book Law Enforcement Information Technology, published by CRC Press in 2001.

“Luddites in policing beware: the train is leaving the station,” he wrote. “It is imperative that IT becomes a prime consideration in all aspects of the public safety service delivery chain.”

Another supporter of the project was Howard Chow, a Sergeant in Recruiting who was a spokesperson for the VPD at the time the seminar was held. At a press conference announcing the initiative, Chow told the media, “We’re at a crossroads right now. Old techniques and old ways of doing things aren’t working and we’ve got to look outside the box, and this is what the Second Life recruiting seminar is all about.”


In order to create the Second Life seminar, the VPD enlisted the aid of experts from the Masters of Digital Media program, headed by director Gerry Sinclair. The program, offered at the Great Northern Way Campus, an emerging digital village in the heart of Vancouver, is a collaborative initiative involving Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C., Emily Carr School of Art, and the B.C. Institute of Technology.

“We have a virtual university campus in Second Life, and we were able to host the VPD seminar on it,” said Joanna Robinson, a research assistant with the Masters of Digital Media program and a key contributor to the project. “We helped them run the session, made things like custom uniforms for them, and got a video made of the event.”

In order to get accurate looking uniforms, photographs of real uniforms were taken from a variety of angles. These were imported into Photoshop, where the outfits were created and eventually imported into Second Life and put on the avatars of the three VPD officers involved in the event: McQuiggin, Detective Cherie Duggan, and Inspector Steve Rai.

“Not only did we Photoshop the textures for the shirt and pants, but we also created a utility belt with things like their gun and mace on it,” said Robinson. “We also created a virtual duffel bag to give to seminar visitors containing information and goodies, like a VPD T-shirt that they could put on their avatar.”

Visitors could even relax with a cup of virtual copy as they attended the session, although to avoid the stereotype, no donuts were on offer.


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