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Taking Something From Tragedy

Rebuilding efforts have prepared some firms to better deal with the looming talent shortage.

September 8, 2006
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Candidate Sourcing, Staffing Management
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In the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Nicholas Santangelo of the Fire Department of New York spent days and nights searching for bodies at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center. Sleep was an afterthought for Santangelo and his fellow New York City firefighters as they tirelessly combed through the rubble of the Twin Towers 24 hours a day.

The FDNY had lost 343 of its 11,300 firefighters after two hijacked planes slammed into the 110-story Twin Towers, killing 2,749 people and plunging the city into a state of shock. It was the biggest loss of life the department had ever experienced in a single disaster. But two weeks after the attacks—which included another hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 184 people, and a plane going down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing 40—acting Fire Chief Daniel Nigro and Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen called a meeting with Santangelo, the chief of the department's fire academy, at its headquarters on Randall's Island in New York City.

"They told me that we have to start to rebuild," Santangelo says. "It was time to get the academy in full swing."

Despite the enormity of the terrorist attacks, it was critical for the FDNY to not only quickly replace the firefighters it lost, but to revamp its training program to address the new threats that September 11 revealed.

That meant new training on terrorism awareness and handling hazardous materials. But the huge loss of life caused by the attacks also exposed a greater need for leadership development, talent management and succession planning pro­cesses to ensure that if a disaster of such magnitude happened again, the FDNY would have the people in place to continue doing its job.

The events of September 11 revealed similar needs at other organizations. Succession planning and leadership development have become top priorities at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, says Michael Massiah, the port's director of management and budget.

The Port Authority, which had 2,000 employees working at the World Trade Center, lost 84 people, including its executive director, Neil Levin. "Succession planning was important before 9/11, but after the attacks it became evident that we always need to have an available pool of talent," Massiah says.

Executives at Marsh & McLennan Cos., which lost 295 of its 1,900 employees at the Twin Towers, were forced to rethink how they defined people's positions and which employees could fill these roles, says Kathryn Komsa, vice president of global human resources.

"We began to look internally at our talent more than we ever did before," she says.

In many ways, the events of September 11, 2001, forced organizations to come up with better talent management processes to meet today's challenges: the aging workforce and what many companies see as an impending talent shortage, observers say.

William J. Morin, chairman and CEO of WJM Associates, a New York organizational consulting firm, saw the number of requests for talent assessments double in the wake of September 11.

"That morning made everyone realize how much can change in one minute," he says.

Rebuilding

Marsh & McLennan spent the weeks after the terrorist attacks reaching out to families of employees, reassuring clients, offering counseling and figuring out where to put its displaced employees.

Early on, executives realized how drastically its business had changed as a result of the events. "All of a sudden clients needed things like terrorism insurance," Komsa says. "Our clients' priorities had changed, and thus so did our work priorities."

It also became clear that the talent pool in New York had changed dramatically in the wake of September 11. People didn't want to work in New York anymore, Komsa recalls.

"Between having a talent market that was different and a change in our work priorities, we realized we had a whole new set of skills and roles we didn't have before," Komsa says.

Executives began looking at Marsh & McLennan's own people to fill new and existing positions.

"We really took on this attitude of 'Let's stretch people,' " Komsa says. That often meant taking a chance on employees who were not necessarily ready for a larger role, but giving them support and training to help them do it.

In other instances, it meant combining positions. If there was a duplication of roles in Chicago and New York, the Chicago manager was asked to take on all the responsibilities.

Focusing more on internal promotions and expanding employees' responsibilities served a dual purpose, Komsa says. On one level, it was a business imperative. It also was a way to get employees moving beyond the tragedy, she says.

Recruiting also took on a new context at the Port Authority after September 11. The agency didn't have problems getting people to apply, but the terrorist attacks caused the agency to emphasize different qualities in candidates, Massiah says.

Specifically, the Port Authority put greater emphasis on a candidate's dedication to public service.

"Beyond everything else, we have to provide a service to the public no matter what the circumstance is," Massiah says, noting that he didn't go home for five days following the attacks. "It wasn't until Sunday that I could heal with my family."

Project management skills also became more important after September 11, Massiah says. The agency had to allot more of its budget to security and hire more police, which meant cutting costs in other areas. This meant employees had to be able to use resources efficiently and juggle multiple roles at once, Massiah says. Port Authority officials developed two several-day training sessions teaching such skills to staff members.

Today, managers are evaluated on 10 competencies, emphasizing project management and productivity improvement. The agency stresses a commitment to public service in its evaluations of new hires.

A focus on training

Like the Port Authority, the FDNY didn't have recruiting problems in the weeks after September 11. For every candidate who decided not to be a firefighter anymore, there were one or two who wanted to join, Santangelo says.

To address new terror threats, the FDNY extended the orientation training from 11 to 13 weeks.

"We began offering more training around what would happen if some kind of national incident occurred," he says. Counseling sessions were also offered at the academy.

Because of its losses, the FDNY increased its orientation class size to get firefighters on the job faster. The first class that began training in October 2001 had 300 firefighters, double the normal class size.

Current firefighters are required to return more frequently for training than before September 11. It's partially because of the additional requirements triggered by the terrorist attacks, but also because so many firefighters just started their careers, Santangelo says.

Today, a firefighter attends training at least 12 times a year, up from five times annually before September 11, he says. To accommodate greater class size and more classes, the department increased its number of instructors from 170 to 220.

The FDNY also has implemented a formal performance management system to test firefighters on their skills. Today, every firefighter has an annual review, which was not the case before September 11, Santangelo says.

The FDNY estimates it lost 4,440 years of experience the day of the attacks. But developing leaders also is critical to the FDNY because about 4,000 firefighters have retired during the past five years, Santangelo says. Many retirees had exceeded their 20 years of service, the minimum to receive their pensions.

The FDNY has expanded its management training to develop leaders within the department. This entails working with outside parties, like the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It also requires trainees to participate in rescue operations with other groups, as it did last fall when personnel went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

"We have expanded our management team training so our people are prepared to work with outside parties," Santangelo says. "We need to be part of a national team to respond to major incidents."

It has become a greater challenge in recent months because it has gotten harder to fill orientation classes, Santangelo says.

In June, as a result of contract negotiations, the FDNY had to cut its starting salary from $36,000 to $25,000, he says. After the 13-week training program, salaries increase to $32,700.

"We are definitely starting to feel the effects," Santangelo says.

But Farrell Sklerov, an FDNY spokes­man, says there has been no difficulty recruiting firefighters, noting that more than 7,000 applicants have passed the entrance test in the past four years.

"We aren't having a problem finding enough people," Sklerov says. He says that it's too soon to say whether the new salary structure has had an effect on recruiting, but emphasizes that starting salaries actually end up around $37,000 because new hires get automatic overtime and holiday pay.

Regardless of why it's harder to fill classes, Santangelo and his team are working to get new firefighters up to speed faster.

To do this, the department is sending out mobile training vehicles to different stations. The department has three on the road and hopes to add more in coming months.

Santangelo believes the increased focus on training and development in the wake of 9/11 has helped prepare the department for the aging workforce issues it's experiencing now.

The Port Authority's increased emphasis on training and development and succession planning has helped the agency cope with its aging workforce today, Massiah says.

"We review candidates and do more leadership development than we did five years ago," he says.

But at an agency where the average age is 45, "the challenge continues to be leadership continuity," Massiah says. "We have the right programs in place now, but we have to keep our focus on it."

Workforce Management, September 11, 2006, p. 1, 33-35 -- Subscribe Now!

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