Welcome to a hipper, younger, capable Canadian public service

More paid internships. Mandated government work terms within university programs. A shorter and more transparent hiring process. This is how Canada can truly engage its millennials. 

By: /
May 18, 2016
Students walk the York University campus in Toronto. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

For the young Canadians already putting their generation on the map, see our profile series, Canada’s Future Foreign Policymakers.

Earlier this year, Treasury Board President Scott Brison rightly outlined an important issue within the public service of Canada: the hiring of Canada’s millennials.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Brison said, “We are really well-served by an excellent public service, but we have a lot of work to do in engaging millennials more fully, in terms of transforming our public service to be open, more accountable, more transparent and less partisan.”

Brison had previously touched on why this is important at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “A smart millennial can make a big difference in an NGO, but I doubt in most cases that somebody leading an NGO could do quite as much as a 30-year-old Cabinet minister like Maryam Monsef, in our cabinet, who is actually making cabinet level decisions on the future of the country.”

If we are to experience the “golden age” of public service that Brison thinks is possible, the Public Service of Canada will need to find ways of re-engaging with young professionals.

As it currently stands, many recent graduates are left completely in the dark about how to find a job in the public service once they’ve graduated. The issue is particularly problematic for those studying in the fields of international relations and looking to put their knowledge and skills gained through undergraduate and graduate degrees to work.

Not only do I know many of them personally, I am one myself. It took me years after graduation to learn how to navigate through the complex web of job recruitment processes and ultimately secure my first entry-level analyst position in the federal public service. For me, there was a gap between my graduate program and public service positions. While my program gave me the theoretical foundation for international politics and trade, it was lacking a clear connection to the Canadian public service.

Students and recent graduates often complain about the complicated and seemingly opaque HR recruitment processes for positions advertised on the Government of Canada’s centralized job posting website, and are disappointed to learn how difficult it can be to obtain a permanent job in their field of study.

Many recent graduates that I have spoken to are left feeling deflated, as they are looking to “lay down roots” and begin their careers and life planning. Those who are able to obtain work placements in the public service often end up working various temporary contracts, without benefits or pension contributions.

As a result, many are opting for the private sector, which can be much more dynamic and timely in terms of its HR recruitment processes. The public service is missing out on a great opportunity to recruit, manage and utilize these bright minds.

Many governmental departments have a connection to the international sphere, on a bilateral basis and in multilateral fora. Whether it’s Health Canada’s representation at the World Health Organization in Geneva, the Canada Border Services leading the Government of Canada at the World Customs Organization in Brussels, or Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s many visa officers posted to Canadian missions abroad, there are many government departments that have that global aspect many of Canada’s millennials are looking for. But, unfortunately, they might not have the experience that hiring managers are looking for when filling entry-level international positions.

How do we fill this gap? There are a few things that the Government of Canada can do.

Better engagement with universities

First, based on personal experience, HR selection processes can be very lengthy in time and opaque, sometimes stretching over a year from initial application submission to job offer. During this time, potential candidates cannot be expected to wait while they are exploring other options in the private sector. The process has to be shorter.

Hiring managers are likewise left with limited options as international files are not advanced in a timely manner, due to staff shortages and overworked employees.

The Government of Canada should work to streamline selection processes, with the intention of reducing wait times and creating a mechanism where applicants are able to make sense of the various stages of the process.

Additionally, hiring managers should increase their emphasis on international work experience, whether with the private sector or nongovernmental organizations across the globe. While having an understanding of how the world works on paper is an essential starting point, having lived and worked in another country provides invaluable experience that recent graduates could bring to the table.

Second, the Government of Canada should strive to create a workforce that is truly representative of all provinces in Canada. This can be easily achieved by re-engaging with universities across the country.

As it currently stands, there are only a handful of universities that have formal arrangements with the public service that allow for work placements. There should be an increase of co-ops and internships in Ottawa. This will not only work to provide students from across the country with the opportunity to access the “Ottawa bubble,” but also get some practical hands-on work experience in the public service.

Every university and technical college should have mandated work terms in the Government of Canada and the provincial governments across the country. This is particularly important for those public service jobs relating to the international sphere, as it is more difficult to get this international experience in the private sector.

Given that obtaining international work experience is quite challenging, Global Affairs Canada should dramatically increase the number of paid internships at all Canadian missions abroad. Once again, these linkages should be made with all Canadian academic institutions. Student employment is an excellent way of staffing positions on a relatively low-cost basis, but also provides invaluable international experience for students and recent graduates.

A successful example of this is the Embassy of Canada in Washington D.C.’s internship program, which looks to provide “students with an opportunity to be involved in governmental affairs and to develop an understanding of the Canada–U.S. bilateral relationship.” Positions at the embassy stretch across all fields of study: defence, political relations, trade, media relations and others. Opportunities like this should be dramatically increased across the globe at all Canadian missions, security permitting.

Reengineering academic programs

In addition to government internships and co-op placements, many high-achieving graduates often lack the skills required to excel as policy analysts in the public service. This could be addressed by creating and incorporating courses that would give students the basic abilities necessary to be successful in government recruitment processes and excel in their positions.

For example, a course on government writing, which is a world apart from academic writing, would ensure that new recruits into the public service would be proficient writers from day one. These courses should be designed in consultation with the Public Service Commission, and in line with what senior executives are looking for. Students could leave such courses with the ability to write a briefing note, an introduction to government corporate reporting, the knowledge of how to participate in and hold interdepartmental meetings, the government consultation process, and a basic understanding of governmental mechanics (i.e. Memoranda to Cabinet, Treasury Board Submissions, etc.).

These solutions are fairly simple and easy to implement, but they are absolutely necessary to ensure that the Government of Canada is able to truly recruit the best and brightest, in order to bring about Brison’s goal of a public service “golden age” and fill the gap left by retiring baby boomers. 

I know many would be lining up for it, if given the chance. Millennials have the ambition, tech-savvy skills and fresh ideas that will enable them to have successful, long-term careers in the public service, and ultimately fulfill Brison’s vision.