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Guarding roundtable: On the front line


October 31, 2019
By Neil Sutton
Roundtable participants: Amir Atri, GardaWorld; Gary Del Bianco, Regal Security; Bryan Kelly, Logixx Security (not pictured Paul Guindon, Commissionaires, who joined via conference call)

Canadian Security magazine hosted a group of senior representatives from leading guard companies on the morning of Aug. 28 for a roundtable discussion on some of the major issues impacting the industry today.

Some of these issues may be persistent in security (wages, training, recruitment, image) but are often tempered by outside forces and change over time. Social media, for example, has affected the image of the security industry — sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. It is also playing a role in how companies recruit new employees.

Canadian Security asked four professionals to provide their take on these issues and to offer their perspectives on how security has improved as well as the work that still may be ahead.

Roundtable participants included: Amir Atri, regional director, Ontario, GardaWorld; Bryan Kelly, vice-president, protective services, Logixx Security; Gary Del Bianco, senior vice-president, corporate development, Regal Security; and Paul Guindon, CEO, Commissionaires Ottawa, who joined the conversation via conference call.

Neil Sutton, editor of Canadian Security, moderated the roundtable, which was sponsored by GardaWorld. This is an edited version of that conversation. 

Canadian Security: What are the challenges around recruitment and hiring today?

Amir Atri: It has been a constant uphill battle. It’s tough finding good employees in our industry. We’ve looked at different ways of making sure that our retention strategies help the ones that want to grow within the industry or have future plans or different career paths within Garda or outside of Garda — in law enforcement [for example]. But definitely for us it’s been an uphill challenge and we’re always looking to improve the quality of the candidates before we put them through our training.

Bryan Kelly: I agree. The challenge I think we all face is the calibre of the individual. We all struggle to make sure we get the right individuals to join our organization — the passion, the desire, the willingness to do the job is something we all strive for. The one thing no organization ever wants to deal with is brand damage. Unfortunately, by hiring the wrong people or putting them in the wrong position, that can happen. We’re all ultimately hiring from the same group. It’s a big industry yet a very small industry at the same time.

Paul Guindon: I would echo all of those comments for sure. Recruitment is difficult. The economy is good. We’re not the only industry that faces recruitment challenges. Maybe a little more so for us [in the security industry] than others. Our guards need to be trained, they need to be licensed, so there are a few barriers in the industry. But they are understandable and necessary. So yes, it is a challenge… In terms of retention, we’re doing very well, but recruiting is tough.

We are putting in a lot of resources and we are using every avenue that’s available to the industry to recruit: face-to-face, job fairs, social media, advertising campaigns, you name it. It has gotten a little better, but it’s still an uphill battle.

Gary Del Bianco: From our perspective for recruitment and hiring, when we look at our metrics let’s say from a couple of years ago, what we find is we’re having to process more applications and interview more people in order to get a similar number of guards. Let’s say the number is 100 — we’re processing more interviews and applications to get to that number.

Certainly [the increase in] minimum wage had an impact on that. But I think there are other factors as well. The workforce is changing and to Bryan’s point, the qualification of the guard coming into the business has been impacted as well. We’re having to work that much harder to get the qualified staff to meet the criteria that our clients expect; those expectations are pretty high — relative to wage sometimes as well. From a retention point of view, for us, I think what’s important is you hire the right guard for the right site. Matching criteria is important. I think you have to supervise and manage those guards effectively and I think you also have to support them in terms of ensuring that there’s an opportunity for growth for them in the future. And educating them to that fact.

Most of our management team started in the industry as a guard and they’ve grown since. I don’t think there’s enough knowledge of the fact that there are many, many opportunities in our industry, rather than using this as a stepping stone to another. It’s important that we educate and support. It all contributes to better retention.

CS: Do you find people are entering this industry as a stepping stone to corrections, policing or another role?

BK: I think once upon a time, there was more of a focus on, “I want to become a police officer [or] a corrections officer.” The police recommendation was to become a security officer to get that experience. Now, I think that has changed slightly. You still have that small percentage of people who are using experience as a stepping stone to get into the military or policing, but you are also looking at people who are looking at this as an [intermediate] job. Maybe they have left a trade to become a security officer, or vice-versa: they have left security to become a tradesman. I think it’s now a little more open, whereas before, people did use security as a stepping stone into law enforcement.

GD: I would agree. Given that we are coming up to September very shortly, we are hard at work looking for additional guards, because we all know what happens. Even those we were not expecting tell us they’re going back to school. And it’s not always for policing and other things. It’s many things they’re going back to school for. For some of them, it’s not an intended step to come into [a guard job] and leave, but they come in and try it out, and if it doesn’t work for them, they leave.

AA: There’s a small portion of the population who comes through our industry with the hopes of getting involved in law enforcement in the future, or something else. There’s a portion who are students who have taken up summer jobs or part-time jobs, and there’s a portion of the population who are new to the country or the province or the city, who are looking [for work] until they find their bearings. It presents a challenge for sure. Our industry has expectations of security service delivery, and those groups provide distinctly different levels of service — and that’s what makes it a challenge.

CS: What are the best ways to recruit new personnel?

PG: We have training courses every week and I meet most of the new recruits. It’s amazing, but one would think in the 21st century that online recruiting and social media would have a much larger impact on recruiting. We find that over 85 per cent of our new-hires are coming to us because of the brand — word of mouth referral. Word of mouth is still the best recruiting tool.

AA: There are different groups. People who have friends [in the industry] or have heard through word of mouth or recognize a brand. And, every year, we have people turn 19 and there’s technically a new potential infusion of workforce. We find for that group, having a positive online presence as well as ease of application completion, is important. However, holding job fairs and word of mouth are still big drivers.

GD: I would have to agree that in today’s environment, we have to use multiple sources for recruiting. For us, online brings in masses of applications, but the [method] that results in the higher percentage of recruits is referrals and word of mouth and the job fairs. That’s what’s more productive.

CS: Has the increase in minimum wage (to $14 an hour in Ontario) changed the industry?

BK: With the relationships with our existing client base, I think what’s happening is, everyone has a budget they have to meet. So what they’re looking for now are other options. We have technology, we’ve got cameras…. Technology is always moving and there’s always something new out there. When you introduce a [wage] increase, and sometimes it’s a double-digit increase on their budget, it’s a concern for them. They’re always looking for ways to scale back. We’ve been successful with some clients who say, “We can manage that increase.” But then you’ve got other clients who will say, “Can we hold on and look at other options?” Maybe we decrease manpower, or some hours on a weekly basis. Maybe we can introduce some new technology through cameras, through video analytics, through monitoring remotely to somehow help decrease some of the costs.

The industry has taken a hit on some of the accounts and some of the margins have dropped in some cases. You work with your clients, and it depends on the relationships, but it gives you an opportunity to think outside of the box a little and say, how can we help?

AA: There’s no doubt that 2018 was a very tough year with the minimum wage increase. There were budgets that were already in place. We have good long-term, strong relationships with our customers, and it was through those relationships we were able to come up with a way to make sure that we’re both happy. The industry, as a whole, has a higher expectation, possibly a false expectation, that because budgets have increased [due to] a higher minimum wage, the quality of recruits have increased with them. That hasn’t been the case. I think it will take another few years for that to settle and for the industry to realize that a minimum wage guard — regardless of whether the minimum wage is $14 or $11.60 — is still the same quality [of guard] even though you may be paying a bit more for it. It’s certainly had an impact on everyone.

GD: Back in 2017, we started discussions with our client base very early on. Nobody wanted to have serious discussions until months later, and as we all saw, we had slightly over a month to implement it once it was passed. Certainly there was opposition initially, but understanding contract language, understanding legislation, all helped in that conversation. We took a model of fairness in terms of passing those [costs] along.

We didn’t achieve the same delta, going from minimum to the new minimum, but we achieved somewhere close to that with pretty much our entire client base. It took a lot of discussion, a lot of education, a lot of back and forth conversation before those things happened. I think I agree as well, that the expectation for that same delta doesn’t exist and it’s going to take some time. It’s a continual discussion on that front. We see it on an ongoing basis, even in tenders and so on. You look at the expectations, perhaps the SLAs (service level agreements) that come with it and you think, we have to have a separate option, we have to have another discussion on it.

CS: Has the industry had time to adjust or is it too soon?

GD: The adjustment is more so in the discussion, especially from an operational point of view with our clients. The adjustment, from a budget perspective, is still catching up a little bit. I think it’s got a little ways to go.

PG: We saw some knee-jerk reaction initially. The issue with minimum wage in Ontario, for example… When you compare Ontario with some other provinces, minimum wage is the same across the board. So now it also has an impact on recruiting. It might be easier to find the same wage that our industry would pay… for someone looking for just money, they might as well go to [the fast food industry]. That’s a barrier of entry. In provinces where there’s a [higher] minimum wage for the guards and the industry [such as Manitoba], we find it’s a lot easier with recruiting and with clients. It depends on where you’re talking about in the country and it depends on how it’s applied. In Ontario, it had a huge impact initially, but I guess now clients have realized that it doesn’t matter who I hire, I’m going to pay at least this amount of money.

CS: How has technology changed the industry? We hear a lot more today about using technology to enhance or even in some cases replace guards.

PG: Take drones, for example. We’ve yet to see an impact. I don’t think the impact will ever be as large as one thought — with drones, as an example — but there’s other technologies. I think the biggest impact overall is a change in the duties of the guards, and having to select guards that do have some capabilities in using technology… and having to train them to operate SOCs (security operations centres) and use different technologies. It’s all over the map; no two clients have the same system. I find that’s where the major impact is. In terms of guards having lost their job because of technology, yes there’s a percentage of that, but I don’t think the impact is that major. It’s really a change in the work in the field.

BK: I agree with what Paul’s saying. With technology, there’s a couple of different things. It helps us to validate some of the work that our officers are doing, such as patrol validation, alarm response and reports. At the same time, it also helps with statistics and trends, depending on the platform people are using.

There has been a change… Video analytics is a big thing. At one point, you may have had extra guards doing patrols, but now when you’ve got cameras that are hooked up for video monitoring or remote monitoring, that almost replaces the actual manpower. The clients get to see a cost-savings, but at the same time, depending on the client, you still need that smiling face in a blazer who can say good morning, good afternoon. As much as the technology does help and has changed [the industry], at the same time it is good to have that security officer who can meet and greet. And there’s that comfort for tenants in both residential and commercial applications — to see a person that they know versus a virtual [presence] that is behind a monitor.

AA: Technology certainly is a nice compliment to go along with guarding — working in harmony together to provide specific protections for a facility. Each facility has its own set of requirements. It may be an office building, a health-care facility, a warehouse or a truck yard. They all have different needs. Certainly, technology is great to go alongside guarding service [but] there are still limitations within the technology. It really depends on the type of facility and the type of security plan that’s required, and the risk levels associated with it that will really dictate.

GD: For us, what we’re seeing is definitely an increased need for enhanced security. That enhanced security is provided by a combination of services. In some areas that are lower risk, perhaps technology can do it alone. But in our local market, for example, we tend to find that we need feet on the ground as well as the technology. A lot of people are talking about the “Big Brother” look of things.

We’ve all seen on the news just recently, Ontario has provided another $3 million to the City of Toronto to combat gangs and guns. As that trend continues, and as the trend for global terrorism and terrorism locally grows, I think the need for additional and more sophisticated [technology] and additional dollars for more security overall is going to be the answer.

To echo what Paul was saying, the guard has to be trained to be able to work with more advanced technology. Whether it’s what’s in their hands, with reporting systems or patrol and guard touring systems, or understanding analytics or more complicated technology and software systems. As that requirement continues to grow, we have to look at educating and training and supporting our staffs accordingly.

CS: Does that change the skillset you are looking for when hiring new staff?

AA: The industry is no longer looking for a retired police officer to sit at a desk and read the paper. They’re looking for someone who has the tech savvy in order to be able to operate and navigate the different systems. They may not be integrated or may be years apart in terms of how advanced they are. There is a new generation coming in and they’re very tech savvy.

GD: I think the clients are demanding it. It’s not enough that we’re just saying that we’re supporting our guards. We are now even more accountable to our clients to provide a certain level of service.

You’ve got KPIs in place and you’re up against SLAs all the time. You can’t use a traditional model necessarily anymore. Anywhere from a commercial building to a logistics house to even residential condos. There are all kinds of things happening in these sites now. The concierge role is not what it used to be even five or 10 years ago. It’s totally changed.

I don’t think that technology is in any way replacing guarding. I think it is enhancing an overall security program.

CS: Can you go to clients saying you have guards trained to a certain level and technology that can support them?

AA: It really depends. It’s client-based. And depending on the risk analysis for the facility, what kind of protection they need. Certainly in our service offerings, we provide solutions that are most cost-effective and benefit the customer instead of just providing them with bodies. Certainly, we make recommendations for systems that need to be added in order to enhance service delivery.

CS: A lot of security guard companies now offer a combination of services, which may include monitoring, integration services and more. Is that the way the industry is moving?

GD: I think our clients are becoming more knowledgeable and more sophisticated.

As Amir said, sometimes it’s site by site, client by client. [Some clients are] looking for exactly what they’re looking for and want nothing else, but in many instances, clients are looking for alternate solutions. They do appreciate the suggestions and recommendations that we’re all making. I think if they’re knowledgeable, one supplier or vendor can supply all of those services. Most, I’m finding, are open to and trusting of that situation rather than having multiple vendors come in. Now, of course that could be different, based on the actual need… I think you have the conversation that involves you being conscious of their budget, providing for innovation and solving their problems.

BK: I do find that there are clients that are looking for a full security solution — that’s everything from cameras to the integration to access control, monitoring, manpower — and again technology will help to enhance the manpower, it’s not replacement. We’re there to give a full security solution for all their problems and help them meet their expectations from a budgetary perspective as well as making sure we’re protecting their assets. It’s important to have that communication and that relationship.

PG: Certainly a segment of the clients are looking for that. To offer everything from the TRA (threat risk assessment) through installation, operations, systems and supplying guards — you will likely be a small step ahead in your proposal. There seems to be more and more clients looking for a one-stop shop. You have to be versatile in what you offer your clients in terms of technology.

Often their mind is already made up or they already have something that they want to add to or enhance. You have to be able to provide different types or systems or different products… It’s changing… which makes it more important for providers to be able to meet their needs across the board.

AA: We did acquire several companies in the electronics and technology sector and it is a division that is slowly growing for us. In our service offering, we do explain to the customers the full range of services that we offer and I think everybody does as well. But looking at last year’s proposals or RFPs that were published, a small portion of them — and I’m speaking for Toronto proper — had systems requirements. They were mostly about guarding service — the systems proposals were separate — but it is something that is slowly growing, I would agree. It’s a new market for us to explore more and more.

CS: How has the image of guarding changed in recent years? Has the security industry overall become more professionalized?

GD: In my opinion, we have to look at it from the perspective of two groups. With C-suite management, I think that group has seen more movement — positively, professionally. I think, because of what’s been happening, they’re looking for greater qualifications and the industry is turning around and servicing it in that way. I don’t know, from a general public, non-security-related perspective, that the image of our industry has changed much. In fact, I don’t it’s changed much at all. I think the public looks at the industry and the workforce as a low-trained, low-paid workforce and that seems to be the image there. It’s not helped by movies and other examples. As it evolves with what we’re doing as an industry to train them more, to provide more complementary tools and technology in their hands and as the demands continue to grow in all places, whether they be malls, condos, commercial high-rises, etc., I think that people, generally and in the public, will start to look at it more favourably.

BK: I agree with what Gary is saying. Brand damage is my biggest concern. When we talk about the level of professionalism, I want to go back to the first question about the recruiting. It’s about trying to get the right people in the right positions, have them in proper uniforms, have them trained and equipped with the tools [they need]: the training, the understanding, the governance, operating procedures, standing orders, things along that line. As well as having the oversight — the follow-up from management, the mobile supervision, quality assurance — where we can be out there to coach and mentor and develop.

In the public’s eyes, when you see a security officer whose uniform is messy or untidy — he might have all the knowledge and experience in the industry, but if he doesn’t look that part, then he automatically has that negative image. That’s something that we work on and we try to focus on, that professionalism. Our clients expect that as well.

AA: I think over the past few years specifically, with some of the incidents that have happened globally, in the U.S. and in Canada even… active shooter events and somebody driving a van, I believe there is a heightened awareness of security guards in the general public. I personally am a little bit more aware of my surroundings. I’m aware when there is someone in a uniform there, and I would expect they would have some sort of an awareness of what to do, should some of those recent events repeat. I believe there is heightened awareness. I don’t know if that changes the image, but I think over the past number of years the image has changed from a night watchman to a security guard who has specific training in mental health, first-aid, or active shooter [protocol] or an evacuation plan.

PG: We are more exposed today than we used to be. Not to say that we weren’t in the past, but certainly with social media — if you keep an eye on social media, every day, there is a negative comment made about one of us. It doesn’t matter which company. It might be a larger [company] or operating in a more public area, but our people are in uniform, and guess what, uniformed people are always a target — police officers, military folks. The only group I know of that seem to be quite shielded from social media is fire fighters. We’re in the limelight, so we have to be prepared to deal with that.

CS: Have guards taken on more of a role as first responders or crisis responders?

AA: Security officers have to respond to fire alarms, evacuations, bomb threats. That’s always been within our industry. It’s just heightened with active shooter or active assailant situations. We may not have had that so common in the past, but there are facilities that receive bomb threats on a regular basis. Staff are able to respond to that and evaluate risks with the stakeholders to come up with a solution.

The situation, in my view, is they are a first responder based on their capabilities and their training and [there’s] a level of expectation as their duties go. But they will be an initial person on the scene to give direction until the emergency responders arrive on site.

BK: In most cases they are the first responders. Everything from drug overdoses to fire alarms to accidents to slip and falls to violence. Absolutely they are. And what’s important is to make sure they have appropriate training and the governance and insight to protect them.

GD: I think we’re going to be relied upon more and more for all those reasons. Like you said, the drugs, the violence… mental illness is on the rise. Just dealing with those situations in a very delicate manner before it escalates to something else. Those are all key.

BK: Every company could tell multiple stories of how our frontline staff have either saved a life or stopped somebody from taking someone’s life. Even just in Toronto, there are many stories. We have great, great people that are out there representing the companies well. They are definitely first responders…. Every company has fantastic stories where they could say, we have people that have gone above and beyond to help and to be a first responder.

PG: We’re part of this national security paradigm. We sit on the front line. So nine times out of 10, it’s going to be one of us who’s going to sense something is wrong, realize something is wrong, and do something about it. It could be on the job or going to work or coming back from work. There’s so many stories we don’t [publicize]. We’re accustomed to hearing them. People will save someone’s life by giving first-aid and CPR. 

This story was featured in the Fall 2019 edition of Canadian Security magazine.