Nova Scotia hooks talent with money

Nova Scotia hooks talent with money

Ian Johnson

What to do when 20 per cent of a project team makes tracks to the private sector

Binding and retaining IT talent isn’t easy in the public sector, especially when you’re based far from Canathan technology hotbeds such as Ottawa or Vancouver. That’s why Nova Scotia’s government is taking a new approach to human resources.

The province has one clear advantage when it comes to hiring new IT workers, according to Holly Fancy, director of corporate strategies for Nova Scotia’s Technology and Science Secretariat.

“We have a significant number of technical schools and universities with good computer science programs in Nova Scotia,” says Fancy. “So from an entry-level perspective into government, we’ve been able to get some good people.”

Add the “wonderful quality of life” people in the province enjoy, and many newly trained IT workers are happy to start their careers with the government, she says. But it can be a hard sell to get experienced IT staff to work for a provincial government, where compensation often can’t match the salaries, stock options and other perks of the private sector.

“I’d say the challenge in the last couple of years has been looking for managers with very specific technical skills, such as Oracle database administrators and project managers,” says Fancy. “Finding those types of people, where we’re really looking for someone with a combination of skill and experience, has been difficult at times.”

And big money, big companies and big cities are still a draw for people the province hires out of school, once they have marketable IT experience under their belts. For example, the Nova Scotia government started ado tine an SAP system in 1996. When it went live in 1997, nearly 20 per cent of the project team took the skills they’d learned and moved to the private sector.

“The team members were getting phone calls from companies in the States and companies A across Canada on a weekly basis, says Fancy.

“In specific skill sets such as SAP the lure has been quite strong, because they definitely could increase their salaries substantially.”

But the attrition rate has dropped since the provincial government launched an IT human resources strategy that addresses areas such as salaries, in-house skill levels and IT recruitment practices.

To begin with, the Nova Scotia government temporarily boosted salary levels for its IT workers last year.

“People can go off to the States or wherever or work for the private sector and make significantly more money… and I think the government understands that information technology is strategic in achieving their business goals, and they need to have the appropriate staff here,” says Fancy. “So we’ve put in a modifier to up people’s salaries – not to fill in the complete gap, but at least to make some difference and lessen the gap. This fall they’ll go out an do another market survey and see if (salary levels) have changed, and they’ll ake a determination at that point whether they’ll continue with it.”

Even with higher salaries to help attract and retain staff, many provincial departments don’t always have the people they need.

Fancy says it’s sometimes more economical to turn to a private sector consultant, and often staff can learn from that outside expertise. But there are also limits to what jobs can and should be turned over to the private sector, and the province is now reviewing all of its systems to define exactly when and where it should bring in help.

To minimize the need for highpriced private sector expertise, the province recently profiled the skills of all the IT and management staff throughout its departments. The results are in a database where managers can look for people with specific expertise. IT projects are already taken to the Business and Technology Advisory Committee (BTAC), a panel of deputy ministers that evaluates projects and approves what resources can be allocated. The database should allow BTAC and managers to make better use of human resources once policies are worked out.

“The skills database may be able to feed individual training plans, as well as give government a good idea as to what skills we have out there in the broad public sector,” says Fancy. “How we use it is really going to be up to the department of human resources and the Technology and Science Secretariat . . . but it’s a fairly aggressive timeline around this.

“The Nova Scotia government, since 1991, has had specific standards – we run one financial management system for all of government, one human resource management system, and so on. So we’ve got standards in place and it’s very much a corporate initiative. This is just another thing that will help to tie it all closer together.”

While the province is working hard to be a competitive employer and use resources efficiently, Fancy says its expectations are still realistic when it comes to hiring and retaining IT workers.

“From a government perspective, although it is difficult when we have to go out and hire someone new and retrain them, if we can provide opportunities for people, that’s also part of our role. I think we have to understand that people are going to come in, we’ll train them and they’ll do good work – and if they do get outside opportunities, then that’s OK.”

Copyright Plesman Publications Ltd. Aug 2000

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