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On the Road to Intergenerational Employment

A model of early career employment within the nonprofit sector:

The nonprofit sector can be a great place to work. It often provides employees with the opportunity to be a part of an inspiring cause. But, for many “early career” employees, those who are post-secondary students, recent graduates, and seeking or working in their first jobs, obtaining meaningful and sustainable employment within the nonprofit sector can actually be quite difficult.

Labour supply and demand meet on challenging terrain.

While it’s relatively easy to secure an internship or that first, entry level, contract position, early career employees often find themselves stuck in those positions. The thin leadership layers of most nonprofits make it difficult for early career employees to progress into positions of greater responsibility within one organization. Perennial funding constraints make it difficult to provide them with mentorship and professional development opportunities. Add to that the ubiquity of short-term project based contracts which constrain the sector’s ability to provide job stability and offer competitive wages, and you can see why the nonprofit sector has difficulty keeping these employees away from other sectors.

Recruitment and retention issues in the nonprofit sector are nothing new. What is new, however, is the pressure that the sector faces in light of an impending labour shortage caused by an aging population, increasing life expectancies, and declining birth rates. Early career employees represent a significant potential labour pool for nonprofit employers, not just to fill current job vacancies but also to fill future leadership vacancies resulting from the anticipated baby boomer exodus. Especially as the nonprofit sector is in competition with other sectors facing similar challenges, it’s increasingly important for the nonprofit sector to ensure that early career employees are recruited and retained.

The HR challenge is sectoral, NOT organization specific.

While individual nonprofits will always have to adjust their HR practices, there are very real structural constraints that limit how much individual organizations can practically offer on their own. One organization may not be able to develop an early career employee but multiple organizations certainly can. Even though the sector is diverse in size and activity, it is united in its goal to attract and retain high quality talent.

The Traffic Circle Talent Model

I have found that a traffic circle is an apt analogy to describe the labour force environment relating to early career employment within the nonprofit sector (see figure one). A traffic circle is a type of intersection composed of a number of entrances and exits, organized in a radial fashion around a central island. It serves as a sorting function, allowing high volumes of traffic to continuously navigate among multiple directions.

In this analogy, early career employees are the drivers. Their goal, as represented by the red arrows, is to secure meaningful and sustainable employment. Usually, early career employees enter the traffic circle through post-secondary institutions, which have hopefully prepared them to enter the labour force. They must abide by the flow of traffic, generally yielding to those already in the traffic circle (and with so many people already in the labour force while the total number of jobs shrinks, there is significant congestion!). New entrants are able to choose from three exit options (though there may be others): one exit will take drivers to employment within either the public or for-profit sectors; another exit will take drivers to employment within the nonprofit sector; finally, a third exit will allow drivers to leave the labour force altogether.

The sector’s goal, of course, is to encourage early career employees to seek employment within the nonprofit sector. So, the central island represents the various labour force mechanisms that are created by the sector to direct drivers to the appropriate exit. Such mechanisms can be anything from short-term student-focused employment options, to professional fellowships, interchanges, and secondments.

In approaching the issue together, a number of collaborative solutions open up to help direct the flow of early career employees.

The Connect the Sector Fellowship is a great new labour market mechanism for the Ontario nonprofit sector.

Throughout 2014, I participated in a brand new fellowship program initiated by Connect the Sector (CTS) and supported by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). The purpose of the fellowship, which is now in its second year, is to create a platform for intergenerational collaboration within the nonprofit sector.

Here’s how it works. Fellows, who are early career employees within the sector, are placed directly into an ONN Constellation, a type of sector-wide working group on a particular policy issue pertinent to the Ontario nonprofit sector. This gives them a practical opportunity to participate in strategic discussions with other nonprofit professionals across Ontario and across generations. In addition, fellows participate in periodic learning opportunities where they learn from other nonprofit leaders on a variety topics.

During the year, fellows work on an individual project of interest and related to the fellowship in order to cement their learning. A committed fellowship steering committee and a select group of advisors support the fellows throughout the year. Lastly, fellows are provided with financial support to attend other sector related conferences and events throughout the year.

Intergenerational networks are a powerful labour market mechanism.

 Fellowships, such as the one hosted by CTS and ONN, provide a platform for true intergenerational dialogue and engagement that exists outside of the structured hierarchies that are characteristic of most employer/employee relationships. The CTS Fellowship had early career employees learning from seasoned career employees and vice versa. In both cases, individuals were treated as peers. This made learning-by-doing very effective and a whole lot of fun.

For many early career employees, opportunities like this are the only real options they have to demonstrate their strategic thinking abilities. It places them outside of their own workplace hierarchies, where they are often bottom rung, and into a setting where age and tenure do not fully dictate capacity. I don’t think that those in the established management echelons of nonprofits purposefully ignore those in entry-level positions. Rather, the problem might be that many just don’t encounter early career employees at a peer level within their own networks. Understandably, when thinking about issues of strategic importance, early career employees just may not be top of mind to invite to a brainstorming session or to invite to try out for a new position.

Fellowships, and other such sectoral opportunities, have the ability to facilitate mentorship and enable different types of networks to form. In turn, these networks can facilitate career movement within the nonprofit sector, helping to retain more of the talent that the sector so desperately needs.

Figure 1: Labour Force Traffic Circle. Note: This figure is only sort of the author’s own creation. The base traffic circle graphic was borrowed from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Labour Force Traffic Circle

About the Author

Brittany Fritsch participated as a Connect the Sector Fellow in 2014. She is currently the Manager of Public Policy and Community Engagement with Imagine Canada, a national umbrella organization for Canada’s charitable and nonprofit sector. She is also a co-founding board member of JustChange, a microgranting organization whose mission it is to accelerate social and environmental innovation in the city of Ottawa. Her research interests include social enterprise, community economic development, impact measurement, and development policy.

She completed her Masters of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University, where she was a Social Innovation Fellow at 3ci. Prior to attending Carleton, Brittany spent time in rural Uganda facilitating various income-generating projects with landless widows including community agriculture and small business initiatives. She received her Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Saskatchewan.

Shared from Connect the Sector 

This blog was originally posted with Connect the Sector (CTS),  a project of ONN which engages a community of younger professionals, connecting across generations, to collaborate to shape the future of the nonprofit sector.


Brittany Fritsch

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