The Right Stuff: How does the guarding industry draw – and keep – the best people for the job?

Canadian Security Magazine – Vawn Himmelsbach: January / February Issue

The guarding business has always been tough, from attracting and retaining employees to competing with new technology. And last June, when a G4S guard allegedly turned on his co-workers at the University of Alberta, killing three and injuring one in a foiled heist, it pointed to some of the industry’s concerns.

One of those is finding the right employees in the first place — and then retaining them. Paul Guindon, CEO of Commissionaires Ottawa, says there are regional challenges where the demand is high for all kinds of work, such as the oil patch in northern Alberta. “It’s more difficult to find security guards and the challenge is not only in finding them but also in paying them,” he says.

There are cyclical employment demands, but there’s also a need to recruit for turnover. The industry as a whole has an estimated 40 to 80 per cent turnover rate. “Our turnover rate is as low as 11 per cent in Ontario … but we still recruit around the year to make sure we fill the gap,” says Guindon.

The industry as a whole can improve this, he says, by increasing the average wage rate for guards, as well as offering benefits such as medical, vacation and pension. “If the industry is seen as a low-wage industry, well, you’re not going to improve your position,” he says.

But another aspect to consider is the clients themselves. “If companies are only looking for the cheapest solution, that doesn’t help,” says Guindon. If a client was to put in its RFP a minimum wage and include some benefits, he added, it would help to lower staff turnover, lower the cost of training and result in less disruption.

In the provinces that have put legislation in place for basic security qualifications, it forces security companies to do better, says Guindon. In Ontario, for example, in order to get a guard licence you need to undergo a criminal background check. But this is done through name and date of birth, not digital fingerprint.

“It’s better than nothing, but it’s not a full criminal background check,” says Guindon. “We security-clear our people at all levels, up to level three, which is top secret … we also do credit checks periodically on some of our people because they handle cash.” But there’s no industry standard, he says, and clients have a huge role to play.

“What happened in Edmonton was unfortunate,” says Jean Pierre Taillon, president of G4S Secure Solutions Canada, regarding the shootings last June. “It was almost impossible to screen out that individual.”

The company has since reviewed its processes and still does background, medical and credit checks. Supervisors also do a “walk and check” first thing in the morning to make sure the guards on duty can do their job. The company also offers an anonymous tip line to help ensure a guard feels comfortable with his or her partners.

“It is getting hard to find qualified workers in this industry, especially in key cities,” says Taillon. “It’s very difficult out West, in Alberta and Saskatchewan.” Legislation has raised the bar slightly for qualified workers, but it has also created a bit of a shortage.

G4S is working with an employment board on potential courses to train security guards. It’s also participating in job fairs and working with community colleges to get people excited about the profession.

The company has been trying to raise the profile of a security officer from night watchman to emergency responder. “We moved the organization from providing support in areas where security is non-essential to areas where security is essential,” says Taillon, which includes banks, oil companies and commercial properties. “There’s a lot more respect for what we provide and more concern on how we deliver these services,” he says, adding that clients are looking for service-level agreements.

The company has created new guarding positions, such as high-risk officers where guards train to work in hospital emergency rooms. This involves training in use of force and first aid. If someone comes in with a knife wound, for example, the security officer might be the first one to provide first aid and get details to help with a police investigation.

Another area is in natural resources, such as mining, oil and gas. “These are premium positions where you’re almost a fire fighter,” says Taillon. Among other skill sets, security officers receive training to deal with fire and explosions.

But one issue that remains is earning guards’ loyalty. There are three entities that try to earn loyalty: the client, the union and the company. In most cases union loyalty is not so much of a factor since those relations are relatively harmonious, says Dwayne Gulsby, president of Securitas Canada. “The biggest challenge for us is loyalty between the company and the customer … it tends to be a balancing act where you want a certain level of loyalty to the customer but they also need to be fully aware of us.”

As an employer, gaining guards’ loyalty can be tricky because they don’t come into the office every day for work — part of the job is integrating themselves into the client’s organization as much as they can — so there’s a grey area in terms of where that loyalty lies.

For Securitas, this means taking additional steps, from tenure awards for longevity to spot awards (such as a $10 gift certificate to Tim Hortons) for a job well done. One of its more successful programs at a local level is guard of the month and guard of the year, which recognizes guards for heroism and sustained performance. The company has also invested in a learning management system to provide ongoing training programs that can be designed specifically for customer requirements.

The biggest impact on the guarding profession in Ontario and Quebec has been the licensing process. “It’s like anything new or anything that changes — a lot of people running around with pitchforks,” says Gulsby. “Once things settle down and you get into your groove it just becomes part of the process.”

Down the road, he believes the industry needs to get more creative. Typically a client puts out a tender for a couple of guards, and the security companies provide pricing, meet with the customer and follow protocols. “I think that’s going to change whether that’s driven by the customer or by industry itself,” says Gulsby, partly because of economic pressures.

That means bringing additional capabilities, new technologies and mobile services into an overall security solution that will hold or lower the client’s costs without jeopardizing the integrity of the security program, he says.

Longer term, he sees a trend toward private security in correctional services, which is already being done in the U.S. and the U.K. In larger police departments, for example, certain portions of non-core policing duties could be contracted out, he says. “At the end of the day it’s cost savings to governments and cost avoidance to taxpayers,” says Gulsby.

Looking at Toronto, for example, there have been a number of high-profile incidents over the past few years where private security could have played a larger role, including the garbage strike, H1N1, G20, G8 and the shootings in the Eaton Centre. The concerns of both property owners and the general public have increased as the city becomes more populated, says Taillon, and police can’t do all of the work.

While Gulsby believes technology will affect the industry to a certain degree — whether through economic pressures or the increased capabilities of technological tools — at the end of the day there will still be a need for human interaction. “I think the trend will be coming to the table with a holistic approach packaged to a security issue, not just one guard around the clock,” he says.

“We no longer watch a door — we watch entire floors or buildings or more than one building through different technology applications,” says Guindon. But he doesn’t believe there’s a risk that technology will replace the guard; rather, it will enhance overall security. You still need a guard to operate technology, he says, and you still need a human being to do a physical check or intervention.

This makes the issue of hiring and recruiting even more critical. “You’ve got to recruit and train people in technology,” says Guindon. “If you only pay minimum wage you may not be able to recruit the person you want — you certainly won’t be able to retain them.”

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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