Nova Scotia CBC Investigates

1 in 4 Nova Scotia civil servants will be eligible to retire by 2020

The Nova Scotia Public Service Commission says it is preparing to face this issue

September 28, 2017

Brian Crawford, a social worker, became eligible to retire in January but he's elected to remain on the job for now. (CBC)

Brian Crawford has more than three decades of experience working in child protection services.

The Nova Scotia civil servant became eligible to retire in January, but he's elected to remain on the job, for now.


"I'm not in a financial position yet that I feel I'm quite ready to vacate the premises," Crawford said.

It's also a matter of personal identity.

"If I'm not Brian Crawford, social worker, working in a child welfare office, then what am I supposed to do every day?" he said.

Potential retirements loom

Crawford is not facing these questions alone.

According to figures obtained through a freedom of information request, and later confirmed by Nova Scotia's Public Service Commission, 2,955 of the province's 11,459 civil servants — or 25.8 per cent — will be in retirement position by 2020.

These figures include employees of provincial government departments, but not teachers and health care workers employed by school boards and health authorities.

Differences by department

Briefing books prepared for incoming government ministers show a government-wide awareness of the issue.

"A noteworthy proportion of DNR's employees will be eligible to retire during the next three years," notes for the minister of Natural Resources stated.

The Department of Health and Wellness lost 10.6 per cent of its workforce to retirement last year.

According to the briefing books, Health and Wellness now has a workforce vacancy rate, "which is creating significant pressures on some teams."

The potential retirement rate in some departments is well above the provincial average.

Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal will see 32.4 per cent of employees in retirement position within three years.

Labour and Advanced Education will see 28.9 per cent of its workers in retirement position in a similar time period.

Community Services will see 27.5 per cent eligibility.

Opportunity for Nova Scotia?

One expert sees these numbers as a historic opportunity for the province.

"This is really the first window of opportunity to make a change in the institution of the public service," said Marguerite Cassin, a professor of public policy and administration at Dalhousie University's faculty of management.

Cassin said the province could take the opportunity to reduce the ranks of the public service, but she's more intrigued by the chance for redesign and renewal.

Marguerite Cassin is a professor of public policy and administration at Dalhousie University's faculty of management. (CBC)

"I don't think that attrition is a foregone conclusion. But it does mean that people can think about, 'Should we have things organized this way? Should we have this exact composition of emphasis in terms of staffing. Should we have this hierarchy?'" she said.

Cassin said properly addressing Nova Scotia's changing public workforce is key to the province's future.

"The quality of the institution of the public service is critical, not only to the confidence of civil society in what we are delivering together, but it's also critical to the development of a robust economy," she said.

Public service commission preparing

The Nova Scotia Public Service Commission says it's spent a long time preparing to face this issue.

Steven Feindel, executive director of client service delivery with the commission, says succession planning is key to making sure departments are replacing knowledge that's "going out the door."

Feindel said the pending wave of retirements won't break all at once because many civil servants, like Brian Crawford, choose to remain at work past their initial eligibility.

Steven Feindel is the executive director of client service delivery with the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission. (CBC)

Last year, 339 civil servants retired, representing three per cent of the total public service.

Feindel said he's had no issue finding new workers to replace retirees.

There's a large population of Nova Scotians working in government in other provinces, he said, many of whom would like to return home.

And, he added, the province hires from the pool of new local professional graduates, filling 2,500 positions in the past four years with workers under 35 years old.

Social media and recruitment

Feindel said the public service commission is also harnessing the advertising power of Facebook, Google and Twitter in its recruitment efforts.

"We used Kijiji even last week for some of our transportation job fair work that we are doing. And quite a few people found out about the activity through Kijiji," he said.

Meanwhile, at the public service commission, Feindel said his five-year personnel plans don't call for reducing the overall number of public employees through retirement.

"I don't really predict the future. All I can say is that the service will be based on what the citizens need. But I think the general track the government has been on is to maintain the current or thereabouts. So I don't see that changing in the next few years," he said.

But after 31 years on the front lines of child protection, Crawford worries that a wave of retirements will lead to a shrinking workforce and reduced services.

"The cynical side of me really does question how much the public even understands what civil servants do," he said. "It's one of those things, the public doesn't miss a service until it's gone."


Jack Julian

Jack Julian is a data journalist in the Halifax newsroom. This is a new position, and he's excited about it. He likes surprises in his stories. Email: Twitter: @jackjulian

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