Police scour cyberspace for new recruits
The city of Vancouver's police department has searched far and wide for possible recruits to join its force. Now, it is extending its pursuit to the virtual world, following the lead of a number of large companies that are attracting job candidates within the online community, Second Life.
The Vancouver Police Department is the first police force to join Second Life, where recruiters and potential candidates interact with each other through avatars, or digital animated characters.
Inspector Kevin McQuiggin, who spearheaded the police department's entry into Second Life, says the move allows police to access a tech-savvy talent pool, at a time when computer skills are increasingly needed to help crack technology-related crimes.
'The kind of people we get through Second Life are people who have a predisposition to technology, a trust of technology and an understanding of it. That'll make more effective police officers,' says Inspector McQuiggin, head of the Vancouver Police Department's tech crimes unit.
Tasks such as performing digital forensics on a suspect's mobile phone or retrieving computer records and e-mails, are now commonplace during criminal investigations, he says. Of the 19 homicides that occurred in Vancouver last year, 18 required police to search through computers, mobile phones or other data storage devices.
Inspector McQuiggin says the police department is considering potential recruits from around the world. And Second Life offers the added benefit of simultaneously reaching a large number of users, no matter where they live.
Like the internet, there are no geographic limits when communicating within Second Life.
Using the programme is akin to playing with puppets. Users can create and dress their avatars however they wish and make them walk, fly, or perform any number of actions.
'Talking' is done through instant messaging, so at any time a user in Hong Kong can meet and chat with a user who has logged on from Vancouver, or anywhere else.
Within Second Life, there are thousands of virtual locations where avatars can meet and travel. Similar to web sites, companies, institutions and individuals acquire virtual real estate, where they can customise their surroundings to suit them.
Using a virtual campus created by Vancouver's Great Northern Way Campus, an educational institution for technology, art and design, the Vancouver police held its first job information session in Second Life last month.
About 30 avatars turned out for the session, which was presented by computer-generated police officers in uniform.
The event prompted four candidates to e-mail the police department with their resumes. One, from Italy, has since been granted a real-life interview.
Inspector McQuiggin says police do not have a specific number of new officers they intend to attract. But, having seen the possibilities of using Second Life, they are examining further recruitment sessions online.
Besides law enforcement, technologically skilled people are now in demand in numerous sectors, reflecting the changes in society.
The US recruitment and advertising firm, TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications, held its first virtual job fair in May, which included tech companies such as Microsoft, eBay, Hewlett-Packard and Verizon.
The event attracted hundreds of applicants, prompting TMP to schedule another virtual job fair next month.
At the event, employers held one-on-one avatar interviews, job-hunters were able to browse through the various companies' virtual displays and interested applicants could drop off electronic copies of their resumes.
Carlos Krefft, 30, an American software developer, attended the TMP event using a female avatar he created, named Dragon Ritt.
'It was kind of like walking around a website, but with people there,' he says.
Meetings and interviews with potential employers are much more relaxed than in a real-life setting, he says.
'I had more time to think about my answers,' Mr Krefft says, since conversations are typed out. 'It just felt like I didn't have so much pressure on me.'
Avatars, however, can be finicky to manipulate. One wrong button can send an avatar flying in mid-air, or ramming into a wall - a potentially embarrassing slip when trying to make a good first impression.
Even experienced users, like Mr Krefft, who joined Second Life about a year ago, are not immune to online gaffes.
Instead of pulling out a resume from his electronic files, Mr Krefft's avatar mistakenly presented a Hewlett-Packard representative with a beer.
Of course, handled well, these situations can be used to break the ice and Mr Krefft managed to sufficiently impress the company and secure another interview.
Mr Krefft says his choice of a female avatar was by no means unusual in a make-believe world where appearances are limited only by the creator's imagination. In fact, he says, while wandering through the Hewlett-Packard display, he spotted one job-hunting avatar dressed as a teddy bear.
In the audience of the Vancouver Police Department's virtual information session, some avatars had wings on their backs, while others showed up with spiked hair, and a few dressed up as mercenaries. 'You really can't judge a book by its cover,' Inspector McQuiggin says.
'[We have] no concern at all about how people look in Second Life, how their avatar looks. It's all about who they are as people.'
He stresses that once initial contact is made in virtual reality, potential recruits must still participate in face-to-face interviews and undergo the usual procedure for hiring and training in real life.
'Certainly, we're not going to hire them just based on Second life contact,' he says.
TMP's vice president of interactive strategy, Russell Miyaki, notes that most employers are also new to Second Life and are very understanding when it comes to the way a job applicant's avatar looks or acts. But, he says, some basic rules of etiquette apply.
While it is acceptable for an avatar to be unique in appearance, over-the-top elements, like extra moving body parts or blinking lights can be distracting during a job interview and should be avoided, Mr Miyaki says.
As in e-mails, conversations typed out in all capital letters signal an avatar is shouting and can come across as obnoxious. Further, neither recruiter nor job seeker should keep the other waiting too long before replying during a chat.
If one party needs to take some time to look something up before giving a response, he or she should alert the other person and explain the pause in conversation, so as not to appear disengaged or uninterested.
Recruiters should also consider their company's image when creating their avatars, Mr Miyaki says.
'You want to keep in mind of who you are as well as what your employer brand is,' he says. 'If your company is a very relaxed, creative company that has a business casual dress, your avatar should represent that.'