With daily news of strikes and disputes over pay, it’s a tough time to be in public sector HR at the moment. Jo Faragher looks at the challenges facing hiring teams and how they can sell the benefits of a career in public service.
“This is the most difficult we’ve seen things for a long time,” says Gordon McFarlane, assistant director at Leicestershire County Council and president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA). “We’ve always had recruitment and turnover challenges with social work or IT, but we’re now seeing these across other areas.”
Attrition across a range of roles is on the increase, he adds, and trying to fill those vacancies in a tight labour market, with stringent budgets, is becoming more and more difficult. People managers in local authorities across the country feel the same. “We’re having to have lots of conversations about why local government is a great place to work, the learning opportunities on offer – but people still want to know the pay is competitive, and that can be difficult to deal with,” he adds.
Dissatisfaction with pay in the public sector won’t be news to anyone. Nurses have just announced dates for their biggest strike in NHS history; teachers in Scotland have hit the picket lines; and staff across 150 universities have walked out in protest over pay, pensions and casualisation.
With public sector workers facing below-inflation pay rises yet the same soaring cost of living as the rest of the workforce, it’s hardly surprising this has been billed as the winter of discontent. The general public is largely in support of this action – a poll in October by Savanta ComRes found that 60% supported workers taking action, with most sympathy for nurses and teachers.
Desperately seeking talent
Despite this positive sentiment, however, recruiting and retaining staff in the public sector at such a turbulent time is still a challenge.
“Some authorities are looking at targeted incentives such as market supplements for certain roles,” says McFarlane, “but they need a strong business case to get those over the line. And that’s become more difficult because we’re more challenged than before, so it’s a vicious circle.”
Public sector challenges
There are also long-standing issues in the public sector – real and perceived – that can put candidates off. “Public sector processes can be onerous and move at a glacial pace; time-consuming application processes which can be difficult to navigate may put off time-poor individuals from applying for roles,” says Helene Usherwood, partner at Anderson Quigley, an executive recruitment firm.
“Jobs in the public sector can also be high profile and often require the individual to work in some very challenging environments. For many, such a public facing role isn’t attractive as they can carry significant personal reputational risk.”
This means most public sector hiring teams are competing with private sector businesses in the war for talent.
“We’re competing across all sectors for our professional services staff in functions such as finance and IT,” says Richard Bellingham, executive director for HR and organisational development at Aston University. “We think we offer a competitive salary but it can be challenging, so we have to look at market supplements.”
A further issue is that candidates can often have multiple offers on the table, and in a handful of cases the successful applicant simply hasn’t turned up for work. Attracting academics from countries such as the US and Australia has got harder, he adds, as the attraction of free movement around the EU has been removed.
Building the brand
Jody Goldsworthy, partner at people advisory company New Street Consulting Group, argues that limited resources require public sector employers to “place greater emphasis on creating an inclusive culture, where people feel empowered to make decisions and progress actions”.
“A self-awareness of behaviours, styles and skills amongst leaders and managers feeds inclusive leadership and helps to promote inclusivity across all levels to create a sense of belonging and togetherness that can enhance staff retention,” she explains.
Bellingham’s team at Aston University have worked hard on the university’s employer value proposition, and it committed early to hybrid working in a sector that was cautious about this at first.
We’re competing across all sectors for our professional services staff in functions such as finance and IT” – Richard Bellingham, Aston University
“I think this has served us well with recruitment,” he adds. “I’d say our hybrid working approach is different from other universities in that it’s dynamic working. We work on the basis of trust rather than mandating people are on campus a certain number of days a week. Our campus is now as busy as February 2020, but while you’ll see a lot of students, there are fewer staff now.”
He adds that the well-publicised industrial action around university pensions belies the fact that many staff have access to a “decent” defined benefits scheme and there are options for early career academics to be flexible about contributions.
Where there can be tension on pay, argues Bellingham, is in collective bargaining, with many universities’ budgets squeezed due to dwindling international student numbers and no increase in tuition fees.
“You can have a well-off university in the same collective bargaining pool as another that’s on tight margins and can’t afford a high-percentage pay rise,” he explains. “We have to go with the majority which ends up being at the lower end.”
“The recruitment of new employees to address staff shortages is a key focus across the sector, but it’s so important that we put an equal amount of effort into retaining the staff members that are recruited,” says Kate O’Connell, director of Leeds Health and Care Academy and Strategic Workforce.
She points out that a loss of staff to one public sector employer can have a wider impact on the sector as a whole. “That doesn’t just mean keeping staff within one organisation, but ensuring that skills and experience are not lost from the sector,” she adds.
“Employees who move between public sector organisations transfer invaluable knowledge, skills and perspectives, so actively planning and supporting movements, and opportunities across organisational boundaries results in growing and retaining expertise where it’s needed most.”
The Leeds Health and Care Academy works with and on behalf of Leeds City Council and the three NHS Trusts in Leeds, as well as a number of other health and social care organisations in the city, she explains.
“This inclusive approach ensures that we understand our whole system and how best to work together for the benefit of our workforce and ultimately, the people needing our services.
“Due to the nature of our central role in the city, we are able to facilitate collaborative work that has the ability to create real and sustainable positive change when it comes to recruitment and retention.” One example is its ‘Connecting Communities with Health and Care Careers’ initiative.
The Academy also delivers a number of retention initiatives including ‘Start Your Journey Leeds’, where people new to their role can join a virtual network of other new starters to access peer mentoring, learning and skills development and support with personal resilience and wellbeing.
In addition, there is a comprehensive suite of health and wellbeing opportunities for all health and care employees and volunteers in Leeds, to ensure that employees can access support when needed.
Thinking about internal talent management can safeguard against this as well as boost engagement, argues Sarah Dowzell, chief operating officer and co-founder of payroll software company Natural HR. She says resourcing internally can pay off in multiple ways.
“Internal promotions and active recruiting of employees for available jobs can dramatically lower hiring expenses for the public sector while also rewarding employees with a pay raise, the knowledge that you value them, and new challenges to take on,” she says.
“Employees in the public sector frequently have years of expertise in their specialties. The time and money you save by not hiring from outside can be put toward providing training and support to help them grow in their new position.”
This also sends out a strong message about how much the organisation values its workers, she adds: “This demonstration of internal promotion provides clear signals to candidates that there is a path for development and progression and that you are invested in their career. As a result, they are less likely to pursue roles with other organisations.”
Employees in the public sector frequently have years of expertise in their specialties.” – Sarah Dowzell, Natural HR
Taking a more personalised approach to training can prove more efficient than mandating certain courses, which cost time and money. Local authorities spend thousands each year, for example, training staff in software tools when many are already familiar with them or can learn through colleagues.
“A better approach would simply involve having a conversation ahead of time with the employee who is scheduled for training and merely asking them if they need this particular type of training rather than making them take the course just because it is mandated to do so,” advises Lauren Wakeling, UK Country Manager at CoursesOnline.
“This is a better use of time and money, improves productivity, and also goes a long way to making the employee feel valued as their opinion is taken on board.”
Usherwood at Anderson Quigley advises managers to “be clear on how they can develop a person in a particular role”. She adds: “Public sector roles often aren’t able to compete with private sector salaries, but promoting opportunities for training, development, mentorship and secondments will attract candidates who are motivated by holistic packages – not just a pay packet.”
Looking to the long-term
In high-shortage sectors such as care, employers often have to resort to agency staff just to address an urgent problem and end up paying a premium, says Danielle Garland, account director at contingent workforce company Magnit.
“Public sector leaders should take a step back and look at their long-term hiring strategy,” she says. “Care providers need to build out a workforce management strategy that allows them to respond to varying needs at a suitable cost,” she adds.
Building more “purposeful” supplier partnerships can ensure talent strategies are less reactive, adds Goldsworthy at New Street Consulting Group.
“Organisations have been squeezed by a declining public purse for years, which has reduced in-house resources to deliver – and constantly adapt – effective recruitment and retention strategies. This places increasing importance on outsourced support,” she says.
“Supplier partnerships need to be based on a precise set of objectives and requirements, with a clear purpose helping to avoid a piecemeal approach that often wastes time and budget and does little to attract and retain talent.”
Away from the picket lines and stress about budgets, employers in the public sector have shied away from advertising the positives of working towards a civic purpose, says McFarlane.
While professions such as nursing and teaching have benefited from big-budget national campaigns, candidates may not necessarily know the range of careers available in their local authority, for example.
“Local government has never marketed itself as a sector well enough,” he says. “We’re complex organisations with lots of different professions and opportunities. We need to raise our profile.”
Bellingham agrees that selling the ‘purpose’ element of working in a public sector organisation is often overlooked.
“As a sector I think we’ve underplayed the purpose card,” he says. “Aston has a real social purpose. Around 60% of our students are from households earning less than £25,000, and many come from deprived areas, so we’re in the business of giving people life chances.”
Alex Cheney, director at talent research company Wilbury Stratton, highlights how the pandemic showed many public sector workers at the frontlines of crisis, proving their essential role. “Talent isn’t solely driven by wages, with more and more placing an onus on their work having real meaning,” he says. “The public sector can differentiate itself in the market with its unique contribution to society’s good and progress.”