HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Can’t Find Them? Better Train Them!

By Dimitri Pojidaeff, HR Group Management Consultants

Originally published in the October 2002 issue of Municipal World

Can’t find a good millwright? Can’t find a good public works superintendent? Can’t find an assistant town manager for a northern location? Can’t find qualified and experienced staff in general? Too many valuable staff retiring? Not enough qualified graduates? Qualified tradesmen all but disappearing?  Good staff leaving for better paying jobs at levels you can’t afford? Tired of paying around $4,000 for one advertisement in the career section of a major newspaper? Welcome to the new economy.

What do you do? Most public, let alone private, employers don’t have the money to compete with the very large industries. Even if you did, you can’t “buy” staff for any length of time before someone outbids you. You can’t wait for our educational institutions to catch up; there’s always a cyclical time lag between the supply of graduates and the demand for them. Besides you need well experienced and qualified staff in many positions, not recent graduates without any experience. Internship programs are great, but suffer from the same problem if they are geared to recent graduates.

There’s really only one viable alternative: train your valued staff and keep training at all times. 

Unfortunately most organizations suffer from adherence to a very traditional mindset that views work in terms of discreet jobs that are filled by recruiting people who have already acquired the specific education, training and experience required for the job. As pointed out by William Bridges (1994) in Job Shift, however, this approach can get in the way of the work that needs to be done, because we learn to focus narrowly on the “job” rather than the overall work.

What is desperately needed is a new outlook which views the workforce in a more fluid and less rigid and compartmentalized manner. All staff need to be valued not only for their specific skills, but for their overall intrinsic ability and desire to learn and problem solve so that their talents can be applied to the work in general throughout the organization. This is part of the required shift in management thinking that has been so well articulated by Peter Senge (1990), author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Many municipalities are quickly becoming in desperate need of qualified staff in many areas. They are needed now, not 5 or 10 years from now after they have gained the required experience and hands-on knowledge. Qualified chief administrative officers and public works superintendents, for example, to name just two positions, are extremely hard to find. It only makes good business sense to train your own existing staff so that you’re better prepared at all times for the loss of staff, organizational growth and cyclical demands. You will also gain a more productive, creative and innovative workforce. As the March 2002 issue said, “Prepare for the HR crunch ahead!”

Training takes many forms:

  • Cross-training and multi-skilling: First and foremost staff should be as cross-trained and multi-skilled as possible in all areas so that there is maximum flexibility and cost effectiveness in staff coverage and manpower planning. You are not caught short because someone is off sick, on vacation or decides to retire. You are not caught short when you need someone to work overtime on a specific job or because of sudden changes in work requirements. Staff also benefit from obtaining additional skills, abilities and knowledge and from having less restrictive and less boring work. Why should one person purely handle accounts payable and someone else only utility billing; it makes no sense for organizational effectiveness or for job satisfaction and career development.
  • Apprenticeship programs: We need more of them; not just the formal existing programs in most trades, but internal ones that are specific to the unique demands of the individual organization. We need to plan our manpower needs and create our own apprenticeship programs to meet them. Why not have Operator 1,2 & 3 levels in Public Works, for example, and ensure that all staff are trained so that they progress to the third level. Pay them for the skills that they acquire. The same can be done for the office positions. Your payroll costs may rise slightly, but this will be more than offset by your savings in overtime, recruitment costs, manpower flexibility and succession planning. This also makes it far easier to attract and retain staff if they know that they are going to benefit from the training provided and have some career growth rather than just be hired into a specific pigeonhole with a hit or miss chance of advancing – we know of one organization that has significantly reduced their turnover by adopting such a philosophy.
  • Work specific training: There are positions that by their very nature do not have any specific educational or training program. The position of public works superintendent, for example, requires a good general background in a number of different areas. Well qualified people in this field have usually acquired their expertise by working in a variety of positions and taking a broad variety of training on their own initiative in such areas as water and waste water treatment, road maintenance, facilities maintenance, preventative maintenance, capital planning and many other areas of technical and managerial expertise. Because of the lack of training, qualified individuals are extremely scarce in this area as we mentioned earlier. We know of more than one municipality that has had little success in filling this position recently.
  • Shared knowledge and best practices: Some areas are taking new initiatives to help share knowledge and best practices. The Municipal Excellence Network in Alberta, for example, is a collaboration between Alberta municipalities and Alberta Municipal Affairs. A key part of this initiative is a database of practices that is contributed to by the provincial municipalities themselves and which all municipalities will be able to access. Practices are now being collected for governance and management functions and plans are to also include HR functions at a later date.

In British Columbia, as another example, the Local Government Management Association has instituted TeamWorks,  “an innovative program that gives local governments access to additional, specialized resources, while creating unique learning opportunities for participating local government staff.” This program facilitates the actual sharing of resources between local governments. Those that lack the skill and knowledge and perhaps the financial resources to obtain outside help can turn to other local governments for assistance. The resource provider, on the other hand, gains an opportunity to gain leadership and management skills and an outlet for professional development.

  • General management training: Training current or future managers in effective management practices such as delegation, performance management, time management, effective communication skills, participative management, etc. is critical. One poor chief administrative officer or other senior manager, who fails to provide proper leadership, has a far greater negative impact on overall productivity, service and quality than one poorly qualified subordinate. A manager’s “people” and leadership skills are of far more importance than technical know-how.
  • Succession planning: Many municipalities are having difficulty in filling key positions, because no thought was ever given to developing a successor to the incumbent who was retiring. It is far more cost effective, organizationally more efficient and better for staff morale to train successors internally. In fact you’re going to have to if you can’t find them externally.
  • Required competencies and behaviors: These are not taught for the most part in any formal educational program yet they are critical for staff to be able to fulfill their responsibilities in the most effective manner. A receptionist with a poor telephone manner or the inability to deal with an irate taxpayer, for example, is not performing effectively no matter how skilled he or she is at word processing or handling customer accounts. One representative of the hospitality industry says that they “hire the one that smiles and teach them the rest.” It is said that most people are terminated for the lack of interpersonal skills that are required by their position; not because of a lack of technical expertise.

What is also needed is greater flexibility in retaining older staff on some sort of a part-time basis so that their knowledge is not lost and so that they can impart this knowledge to younger staff in both a formal manner and as a mentor where appropriate.

As many municipalities are now discovering, the supply of knowledgeable staff is not endless. Hopefully this difficulty in finding new staff will lead to more emphasis on internal staff training. Most organizations that have a proven and sustained record of success spend a significant amount on staff training and development. It only makes sound business sense to do so and good employees prefer to work in such organizations.


Bridges, W., 1994. Job Shift. Reading: Addison Wesley.

Senge, P., 1992. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Currency Doubleday.