Meet Yukon’s human resources czar

As Yukon's Public Service Commissioner, Catharine Read wields considerable power. It's her job to ensure that the territory's civil service hums along smoothly.

As Yukon’s Public Service Commissioner, Catharine Read wields considerable power.

It’s her job to ensure that the territory’s civil service hums along smoothly. She polices the line that divides the public service from political machinations, referees employee disputes and interprets collective agreements, among other duties.

Read’s far-reaching powers are comparable to that of a deputy minister, with one important difference: deputy ministers may be fired at any moment by the premier. Read’s job is secure for a seven-year term.

She’s kept a low profile outside government since taking on the job last autumn. But, within government, she’s developed a plan to shake up the Dilbertesque world of cubicle dwellers.

That includes reorganizing the commission she oversees. Read wants it to “become more of a public service organization than an organization that quotes the rules all the time.”

That means offering constructive suggestions to departments that have run afoul of the rules.

But Read is aware that changing the way government works is an uphill battle. “Change makes a number of people here very nervous,” she said.

After all, her predecessor, Pat Dawes, enjoyed a 17-year reign. During that time, “it’s been a very stable organization.”

But Read sees big challenges ahead across government.

One is training better bosses. Read suspects many grievances could be avoided if first-time managers received more guidance on how to cool simmering conflicts.

That’s why the commission is developing an orientation program for new managers or supervisors.

Another looming concern is recruitment.

“We have an aging workforce,” said Read. “And, as the economy here heats up, we’re having more difficulty attracting certain skill sets,” such as financial and human resources staff.

As boomers age, retirement numbers will grow. More than 40 per cent of Yukon government workers are at least 50 years old. The average retirement age is 59.

Meanwhile, just five per cent of the Yukon government’s workforce is under 30 years old. The national average is eight per cent.

Hiring more young workers would help. That’s why Read has begun to track how many workers under 30 are being hired from outside government.

Another concern is the government’s obligation, under the Umbrella Final Agreement, to hire a proportional number of First Nation employees.

Currently, 13.3 per cent of the government’s workforce of nearly 5,000 employees identify themselves as First Nation. The target is 23 per cent.

Read insists it’s a “myth” that First Nation governments are hard-pressed to find enough skilled workers from their own communities to staff their self-government offices. “They have lots of people coming through post-secondary now,” she said.

Many government workers believe nepotism is alive and well, according to employment engagement survey results in recent years. But when Read audited a representative sample of hires, she found everything to be above board.

She suspects much discontent comes from the awarding of temporary assignments without competition. But, as of this past autumn, most of these assignments are advertised.

Read doesn’t see political interference with the bureaucracy as a problem. “This government actually does a very good job of respecting that line.”

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