Great HR Education

By Bill Leonard Feb 1, 2009
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February 2009 CoverNancy Slavin began her career nearly 20 years ago with intentions of being a teacher and possibly going into school administration. "Working in a human resource function wasn’t a career that I had envisioned for myself," she says with a chuckle. "But it certainly has turned out well for me."

Slavin is director of recruitment and workforce planning for Chicago Public Schools, a vast system with 48,000 employees and an annual budget of $6 billion that rivals most Fortune 500 companies’. Her office recruits all employees for 650 public schools—administrative staff, teachers, custodians and even cafeteria workers.

"A Fortune 500 or even Fortune 100 company might have 650 offices or locations in different states or countries but not all in one city," she says. "So, we pull our employees and job applicants from a much more limited and highly concentrated area. I don’t think there are many private-sector employers that face this kind of recruiting challenge."

Slavin admits that she looks to the private sector for recruiting trends.

"I’m happy to steal good ideas and use them when and where I can" to attract candidates, she says. "We sometimes have to put a different spin on the ideas because we are a public-sector employer, but if it works for other employers, then why not try it?"

As an example, she points to a trend among private-sector companies to be more transparent with job applicants. While the vast amount of information available online has driven this trend, many businesses have moved it forward by encouraging applicants to learn as much as they can about the organization and even urging them to contact employees to see what it’s really like to work for the company.

Similarly, at Chicago Public Schools, "We try to give applicants an opportunity to get a good look at what we are all about," Slavin says.

Reading, Writing, Recruiting

Every year, Chicago Public Schools holds several large job fairs. The events attract 3,000 to 4,000 applicants who have the chance to meet with teachers and principals from several hundred schools and find out firsthand what the schools are like. The school system also arranges tours of Chicago neighborhoods and provides information on housing and the cost of living, so applicants can learn what it’s like to live and work in the city.

"We do generate a lot of interest among potential applicants," Slavin says.

The Internet has helped boost this interest, and Chicago Public Schools has drawn applicants nationwide. Yet even with this wide-ranging success, Slavin focuses on building partnerships with colleges and universities within a day’s drive of Chicago; these partnerships serve as a primary source of candidates.

Although Slavin drives recruiting, she and her staff do not interview or hire applicants. They identify candidates and supply the names to principals who act as hiring managers.

"It’s all about finding the best candidates and then making sure those candidates are fit with the right schools," Slavin says. "And we are constantly looking at ways to improve the process."

One way the school system measures the effectiveness of its recruiting is through the number of job vacancies, and vacancies dropped to a historic low during 2008, according to Slavin. The success of the recruiting program becomes even more impressive when you consider that Slavin and her 50-person staff help to fill 5,000 jobs every year.

"Nancy is one of my heroes," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne S. Duncan, former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. "She and her staff have helped to create one of the most innovative and productive HR teams in the nation."

Duncan points to the number of people applying for open positions with Chicago Public Schools. Several years ago, before Slavin took over the recruiting program, the school system averaged 2.4 applicants for each open job. It now averages more than 10 applicants per job, Duncan says.

"Through her hard work and dedication, Nancy has helped to make Chicago a mecca for people who are passionate about public education," Duncan says. "We truly are attracting the best and the brightest teachers in the country, and that’s a wonderful position for Chicago Public Schools to be in."

Placing Substitutes

Slavin began working with Chicago Public Schools as a special education teacher, but within a couple of years, her leadership potential was recognized. She was selected for a fellowship with the Leadership and Urban Network for Chicago (LAUNCH). After completing the LAUNCH fellowship at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Slavin soon was tapped to take over the school system’s substitute-teacher program. Slavin calls it the largest temporary job agency in the Midwest, placing 1,200 to 1,500 substitute teachers every school day. The task was even more daunting because the program had been dysfunctional for several years.

"Literally, the piles of requests and applications were taller than me, and easily would’ve reached the ceiling if we had set them on the floor and put them into a couple of stacks," she recalls.

Although Slavin had virtually no HR management experience and had worked for about three years in school administration, she accepted the challenge and excelled. She quickly discovered her strong organizational skills and an uncanny knack for recognizing talent and putting people into the right assignments. Within a year of taking the job in substitute services, Slavin and a new staff had turned the program around and had made what had been a liability into an asset.

Chicago’s substitute-teacher program now serves as a model that other school systems benchmark against, Slavin says. After three years, Slavin was promoted but still oversees the program in her current position.

"I must have them fooled because they keep giving me more responsibility and tougher challenges," Slavin jokes.

The author is a senior writer forHR Magazine.

Nancy Slavin

Education: 1998, fellowship, Leadership and Urban Network for Chicago, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. 1995, Master of Arts in educational administration, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. 1971, Bachelor of Arts in education, University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill.

Current job: 2003-present, director of human resources, recruitment and workforce planning, Chicago Public Schools.

Career: 2000-03, manager, department of human resources, substitute services, Chicago Public Schools. 1998-2000, apprentice and assistant principal, Alexander Graham Bell School, Chicago. 1996-98, regional technology coordinator, Chicago Public Schools. 1995-96, special education teacher, Helen C. Peirce School, Chicago. 1990-95, lead teacher special education, Kiva Elementary School, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Personal: Born in Chicago; age 59; married to husband Barry; two children.

Diversions: Travel; reading, especially books on education; technology.

Connections:; (773) 553-1045.

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