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Canada seeking to recruit new graduates to public service

Public sector competing with private and non-profit sectors to attract top talent


High levels of education debt and challenging economic conditions discourage graduates from entering public service. (Adobe Stock)

Canada’s public service is facing the prospect of a massive shortage of knowledge workers and managerial employees.

As the workforce ages, the government has embarked on a public service renewal effort aimed at recruiting younger workers into government and delivering public services efficiently and effectively. Will it be enough?

The public sector is competing with the private and non-profit sectors to attract the best talent into government, and there is a perception that younger workers are not attracted to public service given its reputation for lower pay, bureaucracy and inefficiencies.

A large-scale study found that Canadian university and college jobseekers expect the public sector to pay 13 per cent less than the private sector, making it difficult for the government to attract and recruit new civil servants. They also expect the salary gap to widen significantly five years into their careers; students expect their salaries to grow by 20 per cent more in the private sector.

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Yet, when you factor in benefits and indirect pay, the public sector actually pays better, but differently, as they often come in the form of deferred compensation such as pension plans.

Public service motivation

Historically, the public sector has relied on those who are motivated to serve others — an attitude or work value known as public service motivation — to attract individuals to government work.

Public sector employees rationalize their career choice by asserting that the satisfaction they derive from helping others compensates for the lower pay they receive.

However, high levels of education debt and challenging economic conditions discourage graduates from entering public service.

Further, students predisposed to public service and who are less sensitive to financial considerations may select non-profit employers to help them satiate their need to help others, although there is evidence that non-profit managers will switch sectors when confronted with higher pay.

Public vs. private: Who’s winning?

It is worth noting that students view the public sector as espousing higher ethical standards, progressive, socially and environmentally responsible, and valuing diversity.

They perceive the public sector as more responsive to their need for work-life balance and to help them contribute to society.

However, on the private sector side, students see a solid financial base, greater advancement opportunities, interesting and challenging work, and the opportunity to work with the latest technologies.

To be clear, students value flexible work arrangements, advancement opportunities, and job security the most, which the public sector has not fully been able to offer.

That said, the pandemic may change what younger workers value — the flexibility to organize their work and the opportunity to make a difference — giving the government an edge.

Attracting diverse candidates

In keeping with representative bureaucracy — to recruit a diverse cadre of civil servants that represent the citizens it serves — the Canadian public service has also been challenged with attracting racialized students.

In the U.S., minority group members are more likely to prefer government jobs, given that the government has better enforcement of anti-discrimination practices, and gives preferential hirings to members of “protected groups.”

The picture is a different one for Canada.

Racialized Canadians are under-represented in government. Women, Indigenous peoples, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ students are more willing to consider public service than racialized students.

Racialized Canadians, many from underprivileged backgrounds, may place a greater emphasis on extrinsic aspects of work such as compensation and opportunities for advancement.

Indeed, the public sector lags the private sector in attracting racialized employees in Canada, as they are better able to offer, critically, opportunities for advancement.

Facing the challenge

In light of financial considerations and what young workers value today, the government may be challenged to recruit and retain the best students coming out of universities and colleges even when they are interested in public service.

The government already has a leg up on the private sector with strong benefits and job security, but it will likely need to sharpen its message on public service recruitment, offering interesting and meaningful work, flexible work arrangements and opportunities for advancement if it wants to remain a competitive option for graduates.

Dr. Eddy Ng is a professor of equity and inclusion in business at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.


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