At the Hyatt Regency Vancouver this past March, Vancouver City Savings Credit Union held V After Dark - a staff party for 2,200 people. Besides food, drink and live music, the night's entertainment included a slam poet and B-boy dancers. Another sign that this gathering wasn't your typical corporate mixer: Vancity chief Tamara Vrooman stayed on the dance floor with the rank and file until 3 a.m.
Organizing the bash were young staffers from across Vancity, whose $14.-4 billion in assets, 414,000 members and almost 2,400 employees make it English Canada's largest credit union. Ms. Vrooman, 41, says emphasizing fun and informality is one way her organization appeals to workers younger than 40.
"We're interested in creating energy, we're interested in having people connect," she explains. "And young people tell us that's an important part of the entire employee experience that they come to Vancity to enjoy."
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There's nothing inherently vivacious about financial services, but 64-year-old Vancity has always exuded youthfulness. Having the unpretentious Ms. Vrooman in charge - a former B.C. deputy finance minister, she was just 39 when she became CEO in 2007 - only strengthens that image.
Ms. Vrooman offers her own theory about why Vancity is an employer of choice for younger workers. She thinks it comes back to the 59-branch credit union's commitment to service, the community and the environment. (Carbon-neutral since 2007, Vancity has invested $54-million in community organizations during the past 16 years.)
"When I talk to young people today, they don't separate those things - they see it all in the same package," Ms. Vrooman says. "So the fact that we are youthful in our leadership as well as in our mandate does speak to folks."
Luring and retaining the under-40 crowd is crucial to Vancity's long-term success. Ellen Pekeles, vice-president, human resources, says the credit union is in the midst of developing a talent management strategy "based on growing talent from within."
"As we recruit people externally, we're recruiting people at the front lines that fit with our values - that care about the community - and then they can grow their career at Vancity."
According to Ms. Vrooman, the need for younger employees is no less urgent today than it was before the recession. As an aging population shrinks the labour pool, she says, Vancity is competing for tech-savvy young workers who can relate to its future members. "Getting ahead of that membership by hiring to that demographic is a key part of our strategy going forward."
Mario Paron, chief human resources officer for KPMG Canada, agrees that Canadian employers are drawing from a dwindling supply of talent. "When it comes to your future talent pool - the future leaders of the organization, quite frankly - you need to attract the very best early on," he says.
So far, Vancity, whose average employee is 39 and average retail member is 44, appears to be winning the hiring battle. Fifty-seven per cent of its workers are younger than 40, and 94 per cent of new recruits belong to that age group.
Meanwhile, roughly 38 per cent of the credit union's external hires are 25 or younger. The median for B.C.-based Canadian employers is about 30 per cent, according to the B.C. Human Resources Management Association.
But as Ms. Pekeles admits, bringing younger people onboard can be tough for older leaders, who may not appreciate the new arrivals' directness and their indifference to authority. "For boomers, authority is like a really big deal, and when you're a Millennial, you actually don't really care," she says.
Vancity's answer to this challenge is a relatively flat hierarchy. "It has required us to have a pretty open and transparent work culture so that people have the ability to contribute at all levels of the organization," Ms. Vrooman says.
To keep young workers around, Vancity also offers benefits that are attractive to them. One is a parental-leave top-up for women and men, which helps retain key people. "[We would]lose some of our most productive women in particular by not having those kinds of supportive policies," Ms. Vrooman says.
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Then there are opportunities for learning and development. Ms. Vrooman says tuition reimbursement - an annual allowance of $2,400 for study at an approved Canadian postsecondary institution or industry association - is important. But Vancity also gives younger employees the chance to volunteer in the community and to participate in a national leaders' program with other credit unions.
Ms. Vrooman sometimes hears her fellow business leaders say they just don't get the next generation of workers. To avoid suffering in the long term, companies must take the time to educate themselves, she warns.
"The best way to do that is to get those people into your organization early, understand what makes them tick, and support them in creating the kind of business values that are going to have value for your future customers."