Digital recruitment (or how I learned to stop worrying and love technology)

As an organiser for my branch and regional organiser for DWP North East I’ve participated in many recruitment events for new staff and existing staff. The method was simple and imparted to me by several ‘old hats’ during TU inductions and events. “Look them in the eyes. Tell them about how brilliant PCS is, give them some pens, hand out some forms, collect them once they are completed” It seemed easy enough.

New staff inductions were normally conducted in a dreary training room which TU were invited to as part of the new staff induction to the department.

Invariably we would be allowed to talk to the recruits but only after HASSRA and the Charity for civil servants had already extolled the benefits of joining their club. On many occasions we would be asking them to fill out direct debits or salary deduction forms for the third time that day and glazed eyes told us that they were not really getting it.

To be fair I did get used to it and every now and again during spells of DWP recruitment I would toddle off to the training room with a clutch of forms, lanyards and pens to talk to the new staff. Obviously DWP recruitment, like most departments, has been virtually non-existent for several years’ now, so events to recruit existing staff became more prevalent.

Since those days my branch has changed dramatically. Not only have we grown in size, through mergers with other branches, but importantly our outlook has changed due to being predominantly Left Unity led. Our branch has had to cope with enormous changes over the past 5 years. Being Left Unity led has meant that we are now better at working together, we have a great team, and better at working for our members, as well as being able to look forward, plan and prepare, than we have ever been.

A really good example of this is in recruitment and TU inductions. In June 2020 the DWP announced the recruitment of new fixed term appointment staff to work on the massively increasing UC workload due to the Covid 19 crisis. The branch learned that around 500 new staff would be deployed to a contact centre site in our branch. The branch executive committee quickly met to discuss this and formulate a plan to be able to conduct inductions digitally. PCS had supplied an outline and slideshows about ‘virtual’ TU inductions.

To be completely honest, I think that the thought of a virtual induction event was not very appealing to most reps, but needs must and the priority was to keep staff and reps safe.

The first session was booked and reps allocated to run it. However, it became apparent during our first session that it was difficult to engage with the new recruits and there was little or no interaction from potential new members. Looking at skype avatars was the equivalent of the previously mentioned glazed eyes. We needed to change the approach to get engagement and get new recruits joining PCS.

We revamped our approach and sent extra PCS information out before the induction with links to the PCS website. We also added polls at the beginning and end of the presentation as well as a couple of extra slides to try and make the experience a bit less stuffy and hopefully more engaging. We also encouraged interaction by video and the chat function. We posted links to the PCS joining page and campaign page in the chat and tried to get conversations and questions going. The presentations were better, interaction improved massively and, dare I say it, much more enjoyable for all including the presenters.

It really did make a difference. In the following weeks and months we gained loads of new members, with 70-80% of the new inductees joining PCS. This is obviously great for our branch, and for PCS, but the approach did get me thinking about the future.

The first poll the new recruits saw when logging into the meeting was :-

How much do you know about what trade unions do in the workplace?

The disappointing, but unsurprising answer, was that the vast majority of the new starters had very little or no knowledge of Trade unions or what Trade Unions do in the workplace. Most of the recruits had never been members of a trade union or had ever had the opportunity to join one. In many cases this was the first opportunity they had had to interact with the trade union movement or speak with a union rep.

Bearing in mind that the majority of these new staff are fairly young (75% under 25) and had come from private employers I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The real issue is that they are the future of the TU movement.

While it would be great if these staff continued to work for the civil service, the reality is they are on short term contracts and will probably move back to private industry following their stint in DWP. We need to keep these new members engaged, so if and when they move back to private industry, they can take the idea of trade unionism with them, and the ones that stay, will continue their membership.

The basic principles of interaction have not changed but how we achieve it has. Digital platforms have the flexibility to not only improve communication with members but proactively increase interaction. While there will still be a necessity for face to face meetings, branch circulars via e-mail and in person, voting at AGMs etc we need to start building digital interaction with members and TU colleagues.

On the back of the success of the inductions, our branch has set up regular Skype/Teams lunchtime drop in sessions for members to have a chat with reps about health and safety or issues at work. These have proved hugely popular with members and also brought to light issues that TU were previously unaware of. The more we hold, the more members we get attending.

My branch (and most branches in the country) have moved to these methods by necessity, but it’s becoming clear that if it’s done right, it has huge advantages for TU and for members. We need to embrace it, to build PCS and make it stronger and to adapt to the technology that’s available, and in doing that, reach out to a new layer of members to get involved, and I for one have done that and intend to continue with it.

Mark Byers

Mark Byers is a member of the DWP Tyneside & Northumbria branch, and is standing as a Left Unity candidate for the DWP GEC this year. Click on the image below for the Left Unity slate.

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