Working harder to net the top talent

up the recruitment and application process can help fill key skills gaps in the
public sector, writes Nic Paton

few years ago, a former private sector boss was applying for the post of deputy
chief executive at a major London council. One evening, he and his competitors
for the post were invited to a meal with the councillors – nominally, so
council staff could get to know them, but also so to cast a discerning eye over
the potential candidates.

more than used to jumping through some unusual hoops to land jobs in the
private sector, he was somewhat surprised to find himself playing a form of
musical chairs with his erstwhile rivals. As he and his competitors remained
seated, and after each course, the councillors moved round a place to grill, as
it were, a new person in turn.

idiosyncratic behaviour may, thankfully, be relatively rare, but it highlights
how seriously the public sector takes the search for talented and skilled
individuals. Skills shortages are a major headache within the public sector.
Yet all too often, public sector organisations let themselves down by outdated,
bureaucratic thinking and processes, a lack of creativity and poor self-image.

study by recruitment group Reed, published in July, found public sector
organisations were 9 per cent more likely to experience skills shortages when
recruiting than their private sector counterparts. A total of 53 per cent faced
shortages, compared with 44 per cent of private sector businesses, by and large
reversing the situation from the 1990s.

government (at 61 per cent) was the worst affected, with healthcare on 55 per
cent, uniformed services on 53 per cent, education at 49 per cent and central
government on 48 per cent.

according to IRS Employment Review, in a study published the same month, just 7
per cent of public sector employers were confident their recruitment problems
would decrease in the next 12 months, with the proportion anticipating no end
to their difficulties almost doubling.

year, the Audit Commission was even more gloomy, warning that staff shortages
were reaching crisis point, particularly in London and the South East. Stress
was the number one reason why many were leaving public sector jobs. Demand was
outstripping supply and the age profile in many professions was becoming acute,
with local government in particular dominated by older workers.

the evidence may look grim, the picture on the ground is more complicated,
suggests Paul Masterman, head of local government recruitment at TMP Worldwide.

London and the South East, for instance, recruiting teachers is not necessarily
a problem, whereas hiring an environmental health officer or social worker can
be a trial anywhere.

investment in the public sector, as well as better levels of pay and attraction
of better job security and pensions than in the private sector have encouraged
more people to look at it as a career. "But we need to look at how we
engage with people during the recruitment process and, once we have got someone
on board, how we communicate with them and retain them, and how we reinforce
the employment promise made," says Masterman.

of the problems facing the public sector, notably that of an ageing workforce
and lack of younger people coming on board, are not sector specific but generic
problems faced by employers as a whole, he points out.

is only in the last year or so that the public sector has seriously begun to
talk about how it can address skills shortages, argues Bill Brace, public
sector manager with Reed. "It is about how organisations promote
themselves as employers of choice, how they brand themselves," he says.

to the Reed survey, technical and professional skills are commonly in the
shortest supply, followed by IT and computer skills, public sector knowledge
and experience, financial skills, management skills, customer service skills
and, finally, those with private sector experience.

sector organisations have to work harder to capture the skilled people they
need. Potential candidates too often rule themselves out because they think
they do not have the right skills or experience, so the sector needs to think
of ways of getting the message across that they should at least try, Brace

Borough Council is one employer that has taken the initiative, making intensive
use of new media technology to find individuals from different backgrounds. It
has partnered with online recruiter, and now offers a weblink to
potential candidates, where they can download video presentations on what it is
like to work for the council. In less than two years, the internet response has
grown to 30 per cent.

Metropolitan Police are also taking an innovative approach; having just
completed a £20m community and race relations training programme to bring race
awareness training to its police and civilian employees. It has also been
making great efforts to encourage applications from the wider community in the
wake of the Macpherson Report into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

forces have made widespread use of advertising in unusual places to attract a
wider range of recruits. You are now just as likely to find an advert for Essex
police in the pages of women’s magazine Glamour, as there was recently, as one
within Police Review or in the Guardian.

people never used to see the police force as a career for them, but there have
been some changes now. We need to learn from that marketing campaign,"
admits 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.

sector employers need to play to their strengths more, he argues. They need to
think about the key words likely to attract people, such as ‘building
communities’, ‘helping the environment’ and ‘working with children’. Recruiters
also need to think laterally, analysing what is attractive about the job, and
what misconceptions there might be.

have started to break down some of the myths associated with working in the
public sector, but there is still more to do," stresses Ghosh. "We
are trying to develop good practice around promotion and recruitment and trying
to get senior managers to remove a lot of the bureaucracy from the recruitment

the process is certainly an issue. For applicants from the private sector, the
thud of a thick, impersonal briefing pack and application form on to the
doormat is often just the first shock. Formal panel interviews, test days,
candidate presentations and a generally much longer time frame can also work
against public sector organisations.

a tight labour market, if you have three or four employers looking for someone
with the same sorts of skills, and for one of them you have to complete a
five-page application form and the other you can send in a CV, then the easiest
option will be the CV," says Mick James, assistant director of recruitment
and careers at the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government (EO).

organisations take between eight and 14 weeks from application to hiring, then
it is not surprising they lose talented applicants to faster-moving private
sector firms, he adds. The difficulty is balancing the demands for public
sector probity against the need to be efficient and move fast.

when public sector organisations do try to rebrand themselves and streamline
their application process, they can be hugely successful. The EO’s national
graduate development programme, for instance, is to double its intake after
just one year of operation.

key idea of the EO scheme is to try to make local government a more attractive
career option for younger people, shaking off its image of elderly pen-pushers
and to ‘sell’ the range and scope of careers on offer.

2,600 people applied for just 50 places on offer on the programme last
September, up from 2,100 the year before. The number of posts available is now
to be increased from 500 to 1,000.

more, about 85 per cent of these applications were made online, making the
process more efficient and more candidate friendly.

don’t local authorities make more of their final salary pension schemes? The
package they offer can be a very attractive option to someone in their late
40s. Or job security? Where else could you go to work in an organisation that
in most towns and cities is the largest employer, with a huge span of
opportunities?" asks James.

the past five years, for instance, Nottingham City Council has been working to
boost the number of employees under 25 through a scheme with Jobcentre Plus.
The council has appointed a New Deal employment manager, cut job requirements,
simplified application forms and helped with interview training and form

far, some 82 people have been recruited into permanent posts through the
scheme, with 66 per cent aged between 18 and 24.


Department of Health, too, has been working hard to attract nurses back into
the profession, with high-profile advertising campaigns. It is trying a similar
approach with social work, setting up a national campaign to raise the profile
of social work as a potential career.

difficulty here is that professions dealing with mental health are not seen as
glamorous, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, and often get a
poor press when things go wrong. Even in the medical profession, psychiatry is
often thought of as a poor relation to things like surgery.

study by the centre published in April suggests there is still too much
reliance on recruiting staff through conventional training and education, with
too little done to retain existing staff or use skills more creatively.

NHS and police service are both due to get their own Sector Skills Council
(SSC), the Government’s replacement for the National Training Organisations
(NTOs). The councils, which are designed to develop action plans to tackle
skills gaps in specific sectors of the economy, are a key part of the
Government’s Skills Strategy unveiled in July.

the launch of the strategy, education secretary Charles Clarke pledged a rapid
expansion of the council network to "identify, map and meet key skills
needs in employment sectors".

government, too, has its own skills issues, in particular, how to address a
shortage of skilled lawyers, economists and accountants, argues Nicky
Oppenheimer, a partner at recruitment firm Odgers, Ray & Berndston.

pay is still an issue, the focus has been on the challenges and career rewards
that come with such posts, she says. "People are beginning to realise it
is intellectually fascinating and stimulating, and the fact they are at the
heart of things can be attractive," she says.

public sector HR professionals, argues the EO’s James, the challenge is to
start thinking bigger. It is up to HR to lead the debate, he suggests, and to
look at where recruitment and retention strategies are within the bigger
picture and study where they need to positioned in the future.

has a pivotal role to play when it comes to attracting skilled and talented
people. It can keep its head down and do nothing, or it can act as the
recruitment champion, speaking to and cajoling the elected members and driving
forward new attitudes.

needs to be challenging managers who want to do it a certain way because that
is the way they have always done it. It has got to start challenging
traditions," James argues.

study: Kent County Council
Targeting the local community

County Council has found itself in the enviable position of being inundated
with applications for social worker positions, thanks to an innovative scheme
called Ready for Practice, launched four years ago.

scheme is designed to ‘grow your own’ social workers by targeting the local
community for social work jobs. Local people are taken on and trained, while
being paid by the council, so as not to put off applicants worried about
attracting debts and to attract older applicants and those with first degrees.
Candidates start off on a basic salary of £13,000, with their college fees all
paid for.

scheme, developed in partnership with Christ Church College, Canterbury, has
been widely marketed through local newspaper advertisements. The council knew
it was on to something when, in its first year, there were 1,600 enquiries and
650 applications for the initial 14 places. This year alone, it has attracted
some 400 to 500 applicants for 40 places.

have been swamped by applications each year, and overwhelmed by the number of
people who want to come on to the scheme," says Frank Nichols, head of
professional development at the council.

vacancy rate for children and family social work positions is now just 7 per
cent, way below average for the South East, he adds.

key element has been promoting the fact there will be continued opportunities
for development and training, not just for the basic two years. There is a
10-point plan staff care package and a new career-grade structure.

career-grade structure is linked to a competency framework that allows staff to
develop from newly-qualified to senior practitioner. The council has also tried
to minimise bureaucracy and looked at benefits such as health promotion.

trying to get local people, you have the advantage that they are less likely to
move elsewhere and, politically, it is a very good thing for our elected
membership to support. It is an investment in local people," says Nichols.

have tried to make Ready to Practice our Kent brand and have made a big play
about the scheme. Being trained as a qualified social worker is just part of
the package," he adds.

has also been a push to attract existing staff who might have always wanted to
move over to social work but had never felt they had the opportunity to do so.
Other local authorities have expressed strong interest in the scheme, as has
the Department of Health, which has visited the council to speak to the team,
Nichols adds.

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