The President of the Treasury Board has promised that under the Liberals, we can look forward to a new golden age for public service workers. For the sake of our children's and grandchildren's future career prospects, I really hope that's true. They have an ambitious agenda ahead of them; on the other hand, many public servants who have survived a decade under the Conservatives are feeling that almost anything would be better than the status quo!

On May 3 2012, I wrote a piece in praise of formal credentials, expressing the view that in the shift towards competency-based human resource regimes, recruiters were placing undue emphasis on the "soft skills" at the expense of professional knowledge and experience. While I still stand by what I wrote nearly four years ago, it has since occurred to me that there are definitely some soft skills or competencies in which the baby boom generation tends to excel.

The first of these is loyalty, both to the organization as a whole and to one's specific department and work unit. When overwhelmed by bureaucratic red tape and the stresses and annoyances of office politics, we could always shrug and say "Oh well - it's all pensionable service!" Even when faced with having to defend a policy that we didn't personally agree with, we would try to reframe things a bit and emphasize the positive aspects. And because there was such a diversity of types of work in the public service, we could always meanwhile start applying for jobs that were more to our liking, or more in synch with our personal values and ideals. Because when we signed up for a public service career in the 1970s, it really did look as if we would be guaranteed a job for life. Maybe not one with a fabulous salary, but certainly a secure one, where our credentials would be recognized and we would get our annual increments, if not promotions, and have a decent pension at the end of it all.

Supplemental to loyalty was discretion. We would generally refrain from making public statements that related to policies or directives that were still in the works, or were seriously at odds with what our political bosses were trying to implement. In return, as long as we were performing our job duties properly and in good faith, we enjoyed a certain immunity from prosecution or the duty to testify in public fora, via the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and deputy ministerial accountability. This was - and, I would argue, had to be - something that came from within. And of course, public servants' freedom to speak out depended on the level and nature of their jobs! I'm not talking about penning a song about the prime minister on your own time while fulfilling your job responsibilities to study migratory bird patterns during working hours. Nor about those who argued - again on their own time - that metrication was a misguided direction for the government to take, even though the performance of their own job was in no way compromised.

Once politicians, political appointees and senior public servants began to chip away at the founding values of the public service - "downsizing" and "rightsizing" those who had been led to believe their jobs were secure, watering down the doctrine of ministerial accountability, eliminating severance pay, trying to eliminate banked sick leave that had already been negotiated at the bargaining table, and so on - then all bets were off. It's something that our new government will definitely need to address if it truly wants this new golden age to come about.

Another area where I believe the boomer generation excels is in terms of patience, analytical skill, and the ability to take the long-term view. The organization I worked at for the last eight years of my public service career was big on management training. To be honest, I don't think in retrospect that it was an ideal environment for me. But I tried to do my best and play the game as I saw it at the time. During a "learning circle", one fellow boomer participant lamented, "Whatever happened to the days when you just came to work and did your job?" She felt that the new recruits were wanting to know right away when they would be promoted or when they'd get to go to a conference or when someone was going to come and ensure their workstation was ergonomically correct or whatever. In short, they seemed to be preoccupied with everything EXCEPT the day-to-day logistics of their work. I guess these newbies were, in a sense, taking a broader view of their work life - it's just that they wanted their personal medium- and long-term goals to be achieved right now, if not yesterday, and there seemed to be no sense of aligning their own goals with those of their work unit!

All of which brings me to another competency that I believe baby-boomers can offer: that of bridging the generation gap. Boomers have been the eager young pups just starting out and they are also finding themselves in an environment where their skill sets and personal values may be seen as quaint or obsolete. Outside of their work environment, they may well be performing sandwich-generation roles as caregivers to aging parents or other elders, while they themselves are dealing with some of the health concerns associated with aging. While every generation may have slightly different priorities and preoccupations, I would suggest that the baby-boom generation often has a lot of practice in mediating between the various age-groups.

So by all means, let's put in place the conditions that will attract young people to the public service. But let's not throw out the baby - or in this case the older generations - with the bathwater. We need a diverse workforce that will represent the range of values and priorities of our national mosaic.
When I joined the federal public service in the mid-1970s, it was much more credentials-based than it is now. If you had a 3-year general Bachelor's degree, an honours (4-year) degree, a Master's degree-without-thesis or degree-with-thesis, or a PhD, you were guaranteed a specific minimum starting salary. And it was expected that for the first few years at least, you would have a good chance of getting regular raises and promotions based on your increasing value to your employer. Even somewhere around the late 1980s or early 1990s, I recall being asked, when I applied for a competitive process, for "certified copies" of my degrees, a request which even the degree-granting academic institutions were unsure how to handle! (The eventual solution? I was to bring the original degrees in when I came for my interview and someone from Human Resources would photocopy them and attach a note stating that she had seen the originals.)

Nowadays, it seems everyone is into "competencies". Sounds great in theory, right? After all, no one wants incompetent employees, especially when even the competent ones are stretched much too thinly to cover the work that needs to be done.

Parallel to that is the demand for "generic" job descriptions to streamline the recruitment and hiring processes. Again, most people would love to shorten the time required to get qualified staff in place. (Though as an aside which merits a blog entry all on its own,I think it must be said that safeguarding the merit principle takes a certain amount of time and energy. An equitable public service with a composition reflecting that of the country as a whole is a value worth striving to protect. Private sector employers, while they might do well to emulate the public sector in some respects, simply do not face the same constraints.)

The problem is that the skill set of knowledge workers is NOT made up primarily of generic skills, and that's precisely what makes those workers so valuable in the first place.

Faced with demands for "competency-based" recruitment and "generic" job descriptions in order to expedite staffing, overburdened human resources officers are understandably inclined to craft job descriptions based mainly on what we used to call the "soft skills", things like being a team player, having a superior service orientation, having good communication skills, being committed to life-long learning, and so on. Certainly these skills are important. But how do you measure them? And should they be valued at the expense of that body of scarce professional and technical knowledge and expertise that is implied by an advanced degree?

What seems to me to be happening is that the "personal suitability" cluster of attributes, which used to be weighted at about ten or at most fifteen percent of the ultimate hiring decision for a professional employee, is now accorded more like eighty-five or ninety percent weight in the decision. The relative weights of the "hard skills" and "soft skills" have been effectively reversed.

But is that just a question of different needs in today's workplace, I hear you ask?

Well, look at it this way. Supposing doctors were chosen strictly on the basis of their "bedside manner" with no regard to their area of specialization. It's all very well to reduce wait-times, to have doctors who truly listen to what their patients have to say, to make the patient's experience in the doctor's office a little more pleasant. But at the end of the day, if that wonderfully personable, service-oriented doctor lacks the expertise and professional judgement to make a reliable diagnosis and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment, the lives and health of the patients will be needlessly placed in jeopardy.

There is a similar problem with this emphasis on "front-line" services at the expense of "back-room" services. Fact is, front-line service is often merely the tip of the iceberg. The back-room services are the rest of it - or perhaps more accurately, the foundation that keeps the building standing and working the way it should. We've seen a few scandals over mismanagement of medical records and to my mind that can only get worse if we continue to focus only on those activities that are conducted in public areas.

A degree or diploma or certificate is, or ought to be, a shorthand guarantee that a prospective employee has at least a certain minimal set of skills and attributes - a necessary and often sufficient condition for at least an entry-level job in that person's field of expertise. And if you had to make the choice, wouldn't you rather hire people based on what they've demonstrated over a period of years that they are capable of, rather than on their bubbly personality that won you over during an hour-long interview?



October 2017



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