Using the virtual world of Second Life to snag young IT talent

The competition sure is fierce when it comes to landing good young talent these days.

Organizations are standing shoulder to shoulder around the global talent pool, trying to hook their share of Gen X and Gen Y keepers. But despite their youth, these new recruits are as wary and tight-lipped as a wily old bass. If you don’t find just the right way to attract them, they won’t give you a nibble.

Like its counterparts around the world, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) knows it must hire a sufficient number of these bright young prospects to stay at the top of its game. But that’s a task that’s becoming harder to do.

Until recently, the VPD always had far more applicants than it had positions, averaging about a thousand applications a year. Holding a job fair, putting an ad in the newspaper, and word of mouth were sufficient to fill any job that came open. Then along came generations X and Y — and with them came significantly different expectations around career advancement, compensation and employer.

“Every police force is in the same situation. Because of the changing demographics in society, the pool of applicants is shrinking,” said Inspector Kevin McQuiggin of the VPD’s Forensic Services Section. “The idea of coming to a police agency and staying for thirty years is foreign to a lot of young people today.”

Yet it’s essential to hire personnel who are willing to stay for the long haul. It takes new recruits two to three years to become fully productive; front line officers average three to five years service; while investigators usually have 15 to 20 or more years of service. No wonder some are calling the law enforcement recruiting shortage a crisis.

When it first began to experience a hiring crunch, the VPD decided to cast a wider net for applicants and do some international recruiting. It had some success with this tactic, but with police agencies around the globe competing for the same small group of applicants, it soon became apparent that a different approach was needed.

“We needed to do things differently, and with the changes going on in society we wanted to attract a new class of applicants,” said McQuiggin.

“We also wanted to differentiate ourselves and give applicants a reason to choose the Vancouver Police rather than other agencies.”

That’s when the VPD came up with an innovative idea. As the new frontiers of the Web have become a second home to Generations X and Y, why not use these new frontiers as a means of recruiting?

THE VIRTUAL RECRUITING SEMINAR

Kevin McQuiggin is a computer guy from way back. He specialized in computing and mathematics at Simon Fraser University and cut his teeth on mainframes that used punch cards and paper tape. The 26-year veteran of the VPD spent nearly four years as the force’s IT director before moving to the Forensic Services Section, which includes units for investigating all manner of high-tech crimes. But even though he’s spent the last four years on the operational side of the Department now, he still has IT in his blood.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s happening on the Web and I’m always exploring new technologies as they come out,” he said. “When I heard about the virtual reality world of Second Life I thought it sounded interesting and gave it a try about a year and a half ago. It’s a great application for meetings, collaboration and communication, and it occurred to me that we should try holding a recruiting seminar in this environment.”

Created by Linden Research Inc. of San Francisco, Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world that largely mimics our own. Millions of people around the globe participate in it, creating avatars that act as their persona, interacting with others, buying and selling goods and services using Linden dollars (which can be exchanged for real currency), and even acquiring virtual land, where they can build, live and entertain.

McQuiggin reasoned that holding a virtual recruiting seminar in Second Life would be a good way to differentiate the VPD from other law enforcement agencies and reach out to tech-savvy young applicants. “Tech-savvy police officers are key to the success of future investigations. As society changes, policing has to change as well,” said McQuiggin. “We’re going to have to have more officers that understand Facebook, YouTube, instant messaging and all these technologies because crime will naturally migrate to these environments, just like it has with things like fraud on the Internet.”

As in most other organizations around the world, these new technologies are not well understood by senior management at the VPD, and selling the idea of a virtual reality recruiting seminar wasn’t easy to do. Adding to the difficulty was the lack of experience by recruiters in new technologies, and lack of expertise in this area in the IT department.

Fortunately the VPD’s Chief Constable, Jim Chu, had a solid background in technology and was quite supportive. A past Chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Informatics Committee, Chu argued convincingly for the increased use of IT in all aspects of policing in his book Law Enforcement Information Technology, published by CRC Press in 2001.

“Luddites in policing beware: the train is leaving the station,” he wrote. “It is imperative that IT becomes a prime consideration in all aspects of the public safety service delivery chain.”

Another supporter of the project was Howard Chow, a Sergeant in Recruiting who was a spokesperson for the VPD at the time the seminar was held. At a press conference announcing the initiative, Chow told the media, “We’re at a crossroads right now. Old techniques and old ways of doing things aren’t working and we’ve got to look outside the box, and this is what the Second Life recruiting seminar is all about.”

STRONG SUPPORTING CAST

In order to create the Second Life seminar, the VPD enlisted the aid of experts from the Masters of Digital Media program, headed by director Gerry Sinclair. The program, offered at the Great Northern Way Campus, an emerging digital village in the heart of Vancouver, is a collaborative initiative involving Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C., Emily Carr School of Art, and the B.C. Institute of Technology.

“We have a virtual university campus in Second Life, and we were able to host the VPD seminar on it,” said Joanna Robinson, a research assistant with the Masters of Digital Media program and a key contributor to the project. “We helped them run the session, made things like custom uniforms for them, and got a video made of the event.”

In order to get accurate looking uniforms, photographs of real uniforms were taken from a variety of angles. These were imported into Photoshop, where the outfits were created and eventually imported into Second Life and put on the avatars of the three VPD officers involved in the event: McQuiggin, Detective Cherie Duggan, and Inspector Steve Rai.

“Not only did we Photoshop the textures for the shirt and pants, but we also created a utility belt with things like their gun and mace on it,” said Robinson. “We also created a virtual duffel bag to give to seminar visitors containing information and goodies, like a VPD T-shirt that they could put on their avatar.”

Visitors could even relax with a cup of virtual copy as they attended the session, although to avoid the stereotype, no donuts were on offer.

THE SEMINAR GOES LIVE

Those attending the event on May 31, 2007 witnessed a fairly faithful recreation of the real-life seminars held by the VPD about once a month.

McQuiggin and Duggan — in avatar form — were at the front of the room, giving a traditional PowerPoint presentation. Meanwhile, a VPD recruiting video was shown on a virtual screen behind them.

If a visitor wanted to ask a question, she could do so in real time by texting it, and the police avatars would then text a reply. “The technology for two-way voice hadn’t been developed in Second Life at the time, but now if we were to do it we would run a live audio stream,” said Robinson.

The virtual seminar was attended by 30 people and resulted in four new applicants, none of whom are likely to be hired. Still, the venture had a remarkable impact. Stories on the event have appeared around the globe in 20 different languages, generating a huge amount of positive press in support of the Department’s recruiting drive.

“I was spokesperson for the VPD for three years, and that was one of the largest stories that I ever dealt with in terms of interest from the media. I was getting phone calls from reporters all over the world. It was huge,” said Chow.

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t so much about hiring people; it was about the exposure. Every story written about the virtual seminar is telling people how innovative we are and is getting the message out that we’re looking for applicants,” he added. “The ripple effect from that has been very beneficial for us. The seminar took place over a year ago and in just the last month I’ve dealt with two or three queries about it.” Perhaps even more importantly, the seminar has positioned the VPD as a forward-thinking organization among today’s youth.

“It was a true first. No other police agency had done this,” said McQuiggin. “And we believe that it’s enhanced our reputation so that in the future, when young people wonder which police force to join, there’s a good chance they’ll choose Vancouver, because we’ve created the awareness that the VPD understands technology.”

Not a bad tactic. When you fish around a very crowded pool, you need all the help you can get — even if it’s virtual.

TOTING UP THE COSTS

When toting up the numbers on the VPD’s virtual recruiting seminar, it’s amazing how little it cost.

Start-up funds, paid by McQuiggin himself, came to $120; grants for the two grad students on the project totalled $1500; props, consisting of a police dog, vehicles and a horse, came in at $10; and the production of an ‘in-world’ video of the seminar cost $500. The only additional cost was a moderate amount of staff time, amounting to about four person-weeks.

“We had little niceties that were quite inexpensive. For example we were able to buy a police dog for only about three dollars. He was a German shepherd, which was great,” said McQuiggin. “You can put scripting behind objects in Second Life, so we were able to make him do things like sit and roll over. We even put a little police jacket on him.” Best of all, no need to pick up after him.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

CIOs thinking of putting Second Life to work for their own organization should be aware that there are many pros and cons to doing business in the virtual world. Just ask virtual real estate millionaire Anshe Chung, who was subjected to a cyber assault of flying penises by “griefers”, Second Life baddies who like to attack their targets with “griefspawn”, a program code that generates self-replicating objects.

“It’s a developing technology on the hacker’s side, but there are reasonable steps you can take to protect your organization against the vast majority of people who want to do bad things,” said VPD’s Inspector Kevin McQuiggin.

“You can certainly restrict access if you own land and secondly, you can turn off scripting for unknown users on your parcel of land.” Much of the time, organizations targeted by griefers are those that are perceived as unwelcome by the community, noted Joanna Robinson of the Masters of Digital Media program.

“But businesses that want to go onto Second Life shouldn’t be concerned,” she noted. “If they learn enough about how to control their land they can be completely safe from people they don’t want to be there. The only time you need to worry is if you do indeed leave everything open [in which case] anyone can build, anyone can script, anyone can do anything.

That’s when you run the risk.” In fact Robinson believes that there are a lot of real-life opportunities for businesses in Second Life, because it’s so open. “It depends on what kind of business you’re in and what you bring to it,” she said. “You decide what you want to do in this space. It’s entirely customizable for your needs. You can make yourself look however you want, and you can make your space function however you want — it doesn’t have to be a replica of your real life building; it can be anything.”

SECOND LIFE BY THE NUMBERS

14,692,239 Number of Second Life residents

50,000 Number of people online at any time

467,676 Number of logins in past week

1,000,000 Number of dollars flowing through SL every day (at press time)

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