Workforce challenges

In 1975, the world was emerging from a devastating oil embargo and stock market crash. Everyone wanted to do The Hustle, but no one wanted to go near the water, thanks to Jaws. The minimum wage in Atlantic Canada had just gone up to over $2.00 an hour and the RCMP had recently hired its first female member. Employers posted ads, received typed resumes via regular mail, did the interviews, made the decisions and held all the power in the process. The employees they hired were typically male and predominately white, and they could dismiss those employees virtually in the blink of an eye.

You might think that a business offering to simplify the process of finding and selecting quality employees would be an immediate success. Yet the thought of hiring a third party to recruit talent was a hard one for most business leaders to fathom. The recruitment industry was still in its infancy the year our organization was first established, 40 years ago.

By the 1980s, The Hustle had been replaced by breakdancing. Fax machines and computers were changing the way corporations communicated and their processes for hiring. Employees found they had more opportunities to change jobs than afforded to generations before. Meanwhile workplaces were diversifying, thanks to the Employment Equity Act and women represented 45% of the workforce. The term “human resource management” was gaining traction and employers were taking a greater interest in how to motivate employees and improve their performance. The personnel departments of the past, focused on the administration of payroll and benefits, were evolving into human resource departments tasked with training, development and recruitment.

It was during this time, in a period of recession, the practice of career transition emerged. Progressive employers began to adopt the philosophy that, instead of just firing employees, they should make an investment in their future. By helping employees land a new job or ease into retirement, organizations could enhance their image as an employer of choice. As organizations began to place greater importance on the ability to attract and retain great people, the idea grew in popularity.

By the mid-1990s, new milestones were changing the way we saw the world. Amendments to the Employment Equity Act further advanced the workforce representation of women, people with disabilities, and visible minorities. In Atlantic Canada, the outlook was optimistic with promise of a new era of economic prosperity marked by major developments offshore and the completion of the Confederation Bridge. People were connecting in unprecedented ways, thanks to pagers and the World Wide Web. Virtually overnight, new companies specializing in technologies popped up. Programmers and developers where in high demand and all signs pointed to the tech industry taking over the world. The dot-com boom eventually went bust but technology has increasingly dominated our lives and our businesses.

Technology has changed the way we connect, socialize, even how we recruit and evaluate talent. Social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, have been with us for just over a decade but they have made it possible to interact with people around the world instantaneously. Since 2006, LinkedIn’s membership has grown to 364 million users across more than 200 countries and territories. It has never been easier to promote yourself or for organizations to take recruitment into their own hands. At least that’s how it may seem. Yet the recruitment industry has grown steadily since the advent of social media.

It seems counterintuitive that all these democratizing tools should increase the relevance of recruitment professionals. But with so many candidates now having the power to promote themselves to a wide range of employers, it’s become considerably more difficult to cut through that clutter to assess, attract and retain talent. Creating and maintaining a pipeline of talent through carefully managed relationships and research remains critical to recruiting the very best, yet a difficult endeavour for most employers to accomplish as a side project.

It has been 40 years since the recruitment and consulting company that would become Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette was first founded, and it’s amazing how things have changed. Workplaces are more innovative and diverse. The expectations on both sides of the employment equation are higher than before. Employees seek employers with values that reflect their own, organizations that treat their people well and invest in them. Workplaces are no longer defined by bricks and mortar, as technology enables virtual teams. Employees anticipate the potential for a significant career move every few years. Meanwhile, employers favour diverse experience over long tenures.

With increasing numbers of retirees and the growth of specialized fields, employers are investing more in developing their employees to address changing business demands and future leadership needs. The discipline of Human Resources has evolved to include more responsibility for strategies to drive results. These changes tell the story of a shift in how organizations manage people, seeing them not as cogs in the wheel of business process but as their most valuable asset.

What do the next 40 years hold in store? It’s hard to say. Who in 1975 would have guessed that by 2015 employers would be able to research millions of potential employees from around the world with a smart phone no bigger than a wallet? Or that you could put in a full day of work without crossing the threshold of your office?  Or that a small firm in Halifax dedicated to recruiting, developing and transitioning talent would still be going strong, helping companies navigate an increasingly complex and sophisticated labour market?

If trends of the past are any indication, it’s going to become harder for companies to identify, engage, recruit and retain talent as candidates have more tools at their command to promote themselves to prospective employers all over the world. Organizations will need to constantly evolve the way they find and manage their people, assess skills, and support development and succession. While trends will come and go, and technology will inevitably change, the importance of understanding your people and the role each plays in your organization’s success will endure.

This article previously appeared in the The Chronicle Herald, September 5, 2015.

Jeff Forbes
Jeff Forbes
Managing Partner
Jeff Forbes has extensive experience providing strategic counsel on talent strategies for a wide spectrum of public and private organizations, from start-ups to multi-billion dollar organizations. He has successfully completed hundreds of search assignments in his career, recruiting outstanding executives and senior leaders.