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Economic and demographic factors have led to low national unemployment rates. This is creating huge challenges for the recruitment and retention of staff in Canada’s credit union system.

In the war for talent, it doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by some of the most picturesque landscapes in the world.

Ginny Hourihan, human resources manager at Bayview Credit Union (26,860 members, $397 million in assets) in Saint John, NB, enthuses about the many natural wonders that New Brunswickers enjoy the moment they step outside their front door. The Bay of Fundy, with its huge tides and rich waters, attracts porpoises, seals and a dozen species of whales, while creating the phenomenon of the Reversing Falls. There are also hiking and ski trails, dramatic coastlines and attractions like the famed Saint John City Market.

While lovely scenery may be a factor in attracting staff, in reality, it is but a tiny one and Bayview, like other credit unions in Canada, is ever-refining its human resources policies to maintain a dynamic workforce.

It is a growing challenge. Canada’s economy is expanding. The population is aging. Together these two factors have shrunk the national unemployment rate to a four-decade low — 5.5 percent — this past June. Increasingly, organizations are finding it hard to find a sufficient number of skilled workers, while talented workers are being lured away to other companies, costing business owners in lost productivity. As a result, organizations have been devising ways in which to attract and retain workers, expanding upon such standbys as retirement savings and health insurance. Bayview, like many credit unions, has met the challenge head on by devising unique strategies to keep staff happy and loyal. At its core, this means, says Hourihan, “finding out what motivates each individual.”

Bayview faces an especially pressing problem. In the past five years, 42 percent of those who have left the credit union have been baby boomers heading for retirement — an exodus of corporate memory that has created management holes. Luckily, there is a contingent of strong candidates eager to take up the reins.

The younger staff come with high standards and the drive to co-curate a career trajectory that embraces leadership. Such initiative is immediately evident from the dynamism they express in their initial employment interviews, says Hourihan. They inquire about leadership opportunities and company culture, establishing whether there is values-based synergy between them and Bayview.

“An engaged workforce is directly correlated with successful business results.” – Laura Mably

Such expectations require a shift in culture, with Bayview making one crucial observation, “the younger demographic is most comfortable when they have a sense of community,” says Hourihan. So the credit union established a young leaders group, helping bring together junior staff from the credit union’s eight southern New Brunswick branches to provide opportunities for honing their leadership skills. As it turned out, it benefitted not only them but “the company — in a big way,” she adds.

Cultivating leadership skills requires formal education as well as experiential, hands-on, comprehensive training. Bayview has nurtured such proficiencies in several ways. It has had its younger staff cohort attend community events such as music festivals to do surveys with local youth on what they might be looking for in a financial institution. Opportunities to showcase new communication, outreach and leadership skills are furthermore provided by giving presentations to a demanding crowd, such as CEOs from other credit unions. As a result, “we’ve seen people make leaps and bounds with their confidence level,” Hourihan says. Educational support is provided through Cusource Professional Development and Education courses or via university classes. “We have put several people through university; that’s especially attractive to the younger generation,” adds Hourihan.

Support for mental health

This past summer, The Co-operators Group came out on top in the 2019 Corporate Knights Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada, which measures companies’ environmental, social and governance-related sustainability performance. The Co-operators, a 74-year-old, Guelph, Ont.-based insurance and financial services company, boasts 5,350 employees and $41.7 billion in assets. It provides numerous insurance products as well as asset management and brokerage services for more than 5.7 million members at 252 credit unions. Another hallmark of The Co-operators is its low employee turnover and staff retention rates that are superior to the country’s benchmarks. To ensure it maintains such enviable standards, the Co-operators undertakes surveys with its workers to assess its performance as an employer, says chief human resources officer Laura Mably. In the survey, staff express their support for the organization’s cooperative values as well as things like its mental health program, which offers counselling and addiction support services. Employees also express appreciation for The Co-operators’ diversity and educational supports — more than $1,000 per employee on external education. Such supports spring from a foundation of fundamental values best expressed by the ethos, “profits for people,” says Mably. “The Co-operators exists to provide financial security for Canadians and their communities. An engaged workforce is directly correlated with successful business results.”

Volunteer during work hours

First West Credit Union (248,000 members, $10.3 billion in assets), headquartered in Langley, BC, also supports its employees by focusing on the welfare and aspirations of the individual. Sara Charvet, First West’s director, talent and organizational development, says this involves understanding what each individual wants from their career, no matter if they are in the initial stages, such as a Gen Z just entering the workplace, all the way to baby boomers who see retirement on the horizon. First West is flexible and generous with its benefits program, giving staff the opportunity for extra vacation time and emphasizing career-development opportunities and training. One of the most satisfying things for employees is the opportunity to volunteer during their work hours, something Charvet calls “knowledge philanthropy. We have people who aren’t just leaders in our credit union but the community, so a high number of employees are either out there volunteering on an ad hoc basis, part of a committee, or working on a particular project or with a not-for-profit group.” This could even be volunteering for a parade or at other cultural events. Not only does it enrich the staff member’s working life but it helps the public “understand that we’re here in the community,” Charvet says.

“We have people who aren’t just leaders in our credit union but the community.” – Sara Charvet

Like Bayview, First West has a strong tradition of promoting from within, with more than 60 percent of the credit union’s positions being filled internally. In other organizations, says Charvet, millennials and Gen Ys might be tempted to leave as soon as they realize career growth is stymied. But credit unions, she says, offer a vast array of specialities that facilitate skills diversification, from HR to IT and marketing to finance, that can be utilized as career-expanding training that will help keep employees motivated and challenged.

Clearly, the more a credit union’s brand — people before profits, support for community and the promotion of best practices — extends to staff, especially in these times of low unemployment, the more it will enjoy support and cultivate loyalty from a committed and skilled workforce. ◊


Added Incentive

The complexities of staff recruitment and retention. 

by Veronica Mastroianni and Roberta Staley

Incentive pay has long been regarded as a way to motivate staff to perform in a way that enhances organizational outcomes. But can it also be used to attract and retain new employees? This and other questions related to pecuniary motivation was analyzed this past May in the Filene Research Institute study, Incentive Pay: Research and Guidance for Credit Unions.

Performance-related incentives have been long-regarded as a way to create value for organizations by motivating behaviour that advances that company’s strategy. But the implementation of incentive pay structures is both complex and expensive, while employee performance can be difficult to measure. This is especially true in cases where an individual or team is dependent upon the work of others. As well, higher-level positions, from managers to CEOs, can be challenging to assess for incentive pay calculations due to important but amorphous metrics such as cooperative principles and best practices, the study reported.

The Filene study further stated that, often, “intrinsic motivation is often more powerful than extrinsic rewards.” Nonetheless, performance-related pay is a positive incentive and associated with trust in management as well as commitment to the organization. However, profit-related pay had a less positive effect, as it was potentially perceived as inequitable.

The study presented further evidence showing that the greatest motivating factors for staff combined high-base salaries with cultural fit and autonomous decision-making power, supporting the notion that credit unions can be competitive in the financial sector, even if their bonus system may not match those offered by other organizations.

Dr. Sekou Bermiss, assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin, authored another Filene report, Leveraging Employee Loss for Employee Gain, also released this past May. Bermiss says that retention is as significant a challenge as recruitment. While salary, retirement pension and flexible work schedules incentivize individuals to join an organization, additional motivators must be put in place to keep them happy in the workplace. One motivator is the contribution that staff make to society, as being part of a credit union allows them to have “impact on community and make a difference,” says Bermiss. However, investing in a staff member’s career is an equally significant factor. Younger workers anticipate working for at least half a dozen firms in their career and will analyze how their work at the credit union positions “them for the next thing.” While investing in staff — exposing them to different areas of the credit union, supporting educational pursuits, allowing them to manage a group or a branch — who are planning to eventually leave may seem counterintuitive, it benefits the organization in the end, Bermiss says. “Investing in people because they believe it is the right thing to do — without the promise of reciprocity — results in higher retention.”