job campaigns are helping to rebrand the public sector and are part of HR’s
drive to tackle a vast recruitment problem. Rob McLuhan reports
The public sector is a different beast from the commercial world and offers
special challenges for recruiters. Some areas are improving slowly,
particularly the NHS where better pay deals for nurses have helped and the
influx of £40bn of new money is at least creating a higher profile.
But for the UK’s 467 local authorities the trend is worsening: last year 84
per cent reported difficult or severe problems with recruitment and retention,
according to a survey by local government management body the Employers
Organisation. This represents a massive leap from 39 per cent only five years
The number of affected occupations has more than trebled in the same period,
and there are problems filling vacancies in social work, teaching,
environmental health, fire and other services.
So what is the scale of the problem and reasons behind it? What tactics are
policy makers and recruiters using to plug the gap? And what strategic approaches
are HR people in the sector developing to exploit the positive aspects of
public service and transform the image of the sector for job candidates?
Some idea of the scale of the problem is shown by the latest figures from
the Department for Education and Employment. They show there were almost 5,000
unfilled teaching posts in England in January 2001, and the vacancy rate
increased 1.4 per cent from 0.8 per cent in 2000. Vacancies for social workers
were running at 16 per cent last year, with two-thirds reporting recruitment
The Government has helped in some areas, particularly teaching. Around £80m
has been allocated to help local authorities’ recruitment and retention, mostly
in London and the Southeast where problems are most severe. Other incentives
for teacher recruitment include golden hellos, grants and salaries for
trainees, and support for those returning to the profession.
In the NHS, pay has improved slightly, and although the 3.6 per cent deal
announced in January did not go as far as many would have liked, there is a
sense things are changing for the better, says John Stock, senior research
officer at the Royal College of Nursing. Surveys show a subtle degree of
improvement in morale, with individuals showing more job satisfaction and more
faith in employers.
Marie Cleary, HR manager at Poole Hospital NHS Trust says: "Pay is
absolutely key where we are competing for young talent against other types of
"We have to value talent in monetary terms, paying competitive salaries
and ensuring development and progression are available in order to retain
However, pay is not the only issue in the NHS, where the sheer volume of new
government initiatives is hitting staff morale and retention. Grant Taylor, a
recruitment consultant specialising in public sector appointments at Macmillan
Davies Hodes, says: "The number of directives employees receive make it
difficult for them to do their jobs. One man who went into the NHS recently
says he is frustrated at having to prioritise the initiatives, and many just
A short-term solution is to bring in interim contractors to fill gaps. That
provides flexibility but eats into budgets, Taylor says. "If employers put
more effort into building up salaries they would retain more people, and spend
less on recruitment," he points out.
Some desperate recruiters in local authorities are also offering a market
supplement of an extra £2,000-3,000 on top of the basic salary. But again, this
simply enables a council to poach from its neighbours and does nothing to
alleviate the overall shortage.
Where public sector pay is concerned, problems are more complex. For
instance, where pay scales are negotiated nationally, as they are with
firefighters, it is more difficult to recruit in the South East where the cost
of living is highest.
As property inflation soars ever upwards, there is a problem with the lack
of affordable housing that cannot be addressed by simply raising pay.
Mick James, deputy head of people skills and development at the Employers
Organisation, says: "Even if you doubled everyone’s salary in local
government, it would simply drive up the housing prices, so that’s not the
The organisation is looking at various options, such as identifying
publicly-owned housing stock that can be made available for workers or creating
new housing specifically for them: one north London authority is even said to
be thinking of putting up prefabs on public land. But all these would take time
to take effect, James points out.
Another way of easing pay difficulties is to provide discounts. Some
authorities have negotiated deals with local suppliers that enable their
employees to get goods and services at reduced rates.
The easing of the labour market in an economic slowdown might be expected to
assist recruiters in attracting individuals from the private sector. However
any benefit tends to be less in the service professions such as teachers and
nurses than in administration, particularly at the middle and top levels where
business expertise is highly valued. Modernisation projects aimed at making
services more competitive and dynamic help in this regard, and many local
authority and NHS recruiters are widening their net to attract commercial
Virginia Bottomley, a former cabinet minister now chairing the
not-for-profit practice at headhunters Odgers Ray & Berndtson, says:
"There is a growing perception that the delivery of great public services
is a critical issue in our generation, and finding people to move from the
private to public sector can be encouraged with the right information."
But it is not always easy to find people who can cope with the complexity of
the public sector, or to overcome negative perceptions. "Many worry that a
bureaucratic environment will inhibit their room for manoeuvre," Bottomley
"They believe it to be risk averse and are concerned that if things go
wrong the blame culture may damage their long-term career."
But however successful recruiters are in luring talent from the business
world, they know much of it will return when the economy starts to grow more
strongly. Any long-term solution, they recognise, must play to the public
On the plus side is the public service ethos, with the idea that individuals
can make a difference in their own community. "That is really underplayed
and we should be doing more to promote it," says Andreas Ghosh, head of
personnel and development at the London Borough of Lewisham, and director of
recruitment and retention at the Society of Chief Personnel Officers (Socpo).
Research shows that the opportunity to provide good service, together with a
friendly atmosphere and interesting work, now outranks pay as a chief concern,
Ghosh adds. Another advantage to play up is the fact of being a local employer:
in Lewisham, more than half of council employees live locally and a further
20-30 per cent in neighbouring boroughs.
Ghosh also argues that local authorities undersell the considerable training
and development opportunities they provide, particularly for HR managers.
"Often we end up providing skills that they can use in other sectors,
which is very useful for them," he says.
"HR professionals can also be attracted by the fact that we are a
people business, with a great emphasis on strategic management as opposed to
However, these strengths are not always understood publicly. "Local
government needs to market itself and what it does," says Employers
Organisation’s James. "A lot of what we do in terms of protecting people
and the quality of the food they eat, providing social services and housing for
the homeless, tend to appear in the press when things go badly wrong, and you
don’t hear so much about the successes."
This is a serious disadvantage when it comes to attracting young people into
the public sector, an increasingly urgent matter, as local government suffers
from an ageing workforce. Only 5 per cent are under 25 compared with around 16
per cent in the wider economy, and there will be a bulge in numbers of local
government employees expecting to retire over the next decade.
One solution is to talk more to school children to explain how interesting
local government can be. Ideally, James concedes, this would be done less by
middle-aged men, as tends to be the case, and more by younger council employees
of both sexes and diverse ethnic groups, who are easier for young people to
However, despite the continuing serious shortages, there is a sense that the
public sector is turning the corner in creating a better perception of what it
is and does.
HR has a big opportunity to seize the initiative to put the sector on a more
equal footing with the private sector in the employment stakes.
Case study: Blackpool Borough Council
Like many authorities, Blackpool
Borough Council has been experiencing difficulties recruiting for certain
occupational fields, such as social workers, environmental health and plumbers.
However, it has made a concerted effort to broaden its approach, making
intensive use of new media and spreading its net wider to find individuals with
different backgrounds and commercial skills.
The authority recently partnered with Monster.com, one of the
largest global internet recruitment sites. This offers significantly bigger
catchments than the specialist local government site it previously used, which
did not extend to the range of skills the authority seeks.
The budget has been stretched by cutting the size of press
advertisements and training recruitment managers to write shorter text.
The weblink has been publicised by local mailings and
advertising to raise awareness of the new recruitment channel. Visitors who log
on can download a short video of presentations by senior executives talking
about what it is like to work for the council.
In less than two years the internet response has grown to 30
per cent. "We have seen a lot of benefit from that, as we have started to
hear from many people who wouldn’t have applied in the past," says head of
personnel Carol Mills. One recent appointment was for a zoo keeper from
The authority has also produced a CD to help recruit a new
chief executive, which attracted some useful publicity.
As well as increasing the range of recruitment drives, the use
of new media is a better way to get the attention of young people than
advertising in the press or sending out printed mailings, Mills says.
"Young people are completely switched on in terms of IT and the internet,
and the fact that we use it helps to counteract their view of local government
as boring and bureaucratic."
Future plans include pooling resources with neighbouring
councils to get a better deal with advertising agencies. The chosen partner
would be encouraged to add extra investment, for instance by creating a special
site to attract social workers and teachers to the north.