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Public Sector Organizations Need to Refresh Their Brand to Attract the Best Talent

Ottawa, August 17, 2017— Public sector organizations need to promote the purposeful nature of public service work and its social impact to become more attractive to millennials and Gen Z’s if they are to address the skill shortages and skill mismatches predicted in the coming years, according to a new Conference Board of Canada report released today.

“The public sector’s ability to leverage its brand as a purpose-based employer has eroded in recent years and HR leaders are particularly concerned that attracting talent to the public sector has become more difficult as it competes against the private sector,” said Shannon Jackson, Associate Director, Leadership and Human Resources Research, The Conference Board of Canada. “With nearly half of its new hires expected to be millennials, HR leaders at all levels in the Canadian public sector, need to differentiate the value of their organizations’ from the private sector to attract the right, high-quality talent to move forward into a challenging future.”


  • Public sector organizations face similar human capital challenges as the private sector, but from a different perspective.
  • Among the top human capital challenges facing the public sector are the need to develop managers and leaders and the need to build an optimum workforce in a period of demographic change.
  • Public sector organizations need to rebrand and communicate the value of public sector careers to attract and retain the future workforce.

The report, Rethinking Public Sector HR: Canadian Executives Speak, identifies five top human capital challenges that public sector organizations face now and will continue to face over the next few years. These challenges include the need to build an optimum workforce in a period of demographic change, and the need to develop the next generation of leaders and managers that does not focus primarily on technical skills.

A previous Conference Board of Canada survey of 150 Canadian human resources leaders confirmed that the public sector workforce is older than the private sector in all job categories. In addition, the average age of retirement is two years younger than in the private sector. These two factors combine to result in higher retirement rates in public sector organizations in the coming years. However, the survey also revealed that more than half of responding organizations already reported difficulty recruiting quality candidates with the mission-critical skills essential in their business context and with the hot skills most in demand.

Recognizing that attracting talent to the public sector has become more difficult in recent years, public sector organizations have identified the need to rebrand as a priority. Public sector organizations want to highlight the value of public service as a vocation—or a calling—to set themselves apart from private sector employment and to make it a more attractive career for millennials.

Other priorities for public sector organizations identified in the report, include:

  • Redefine how work gets done in the public sector. In the public sector, processes can often become more important than outcomes. Moreover, out-of-date technology, poor career development paths and a lack of innovation are potential disengagers for new, younger employees. The creation of a new organizational construct that is less hierarchical, more tech-savvy, and more sensitive to employees’ needs could help address these concerns.
  • Deconstruct and renew HR. The changing nature of work is a growing workforce challenge for both the public and private sectors. HR can be the connector in helping guide the design and accountability of structures that support and sustain new approaches going forward. However, there is a need for a change in HR culture and mindset, along with a change in how HR is staffed, organized and operated.
  • Support a mentally healthy workplace. Mental wellness was identified as a top HR priority. Measuring and assessing candidates for hiring and promotion, for a cultural fit and adaptability to change are new goals. Likewise, public sector organizations hope to offer more support to early-career employees.

The report is based on a roundtable discussion hosted by The Conference Board of Canada, in partnership with Aon Hewitt, in early 2017. The roundtable brought together 17 senior HR executives from public sector organizations across Canada.

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