Quest for the best

The public sector’s golden period of funding has come to an end and although budgets will be smaller, the recruitment challenge remains as big as ever.

All recruitment in the public sector now happens against the backdrop of the government’s efficiency drive, which could see overall numbers cut by 104,000. Chancellor Gordon Brown is also decentralising much of the civil service, with a further 20,000 staff being relocated around the country.

This emphasis is reflected in the latest HR trends and indicators survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which reveals recruiters in the public sector intend to take on less people than elsewhere.

No change in public sector

According to the findings, a quarter of all private firms expect to employ more staff over the next 12 months, whereas the figure for the public sector shows no change.

The CIPD believes public sector employers will maintain the current workforce numbers, because despite redundancies, more front-line workers will be required.

They also face well-publicised difficulties, particularly in the NHS, with skills shortages leading to widespread overseas recruitment.

However, there is still a huge amount of recruitment activity in the public sector and, just like private companies, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract the right people.

Ongoing skills shortages across all industries, combined with a tight labour market – a record 28 million people are now in work in the UK – are making it increasingly difficult for HR professionals in the public sector.

John Philpott, the CIPD’s chief economist, believes employers will continue to experience recruitment problems throughout 2005 and must use more innovative methods to attract the best people.

“The tight labour market is creating real difficulties for employers seeking to recruit new employees and retain existing ones. With pay restraint seemingly the norm, employers are investing more time and effort in improving recruitment.

“Many are paying greater attention to work-life balance and family-friendly policies to attract new staff and retain and motivate the existing workforce,” he says.

Pay stagnation means that public sector employers must use drivers other than salary to find the most talented individuals. Image and communication are key and raising awareness of public sector careers is becoming a vital theme in the war for talent.

Showcasing careers

The Society for Chief Personnel Officers (Socpo), the NHS and the Employers’ Organisation for local government (EO) recently organised a week of events to showcase the depth and diversity of roles on offer.

Much of the activity was aimed at students, as specialist graduate recruitment programmes are in operation across the public sector, most notably in local government.

It also demonstrated that progressive HR policies are coming to the forefront as employers look for the crucial edge over competitors when it comes to recruitment.

Rob Pinkham, executive director of the EO, says council leaders must focus efforts on ensuring suitable HR policies are in place. “Effective people management is vital to the successful management of change at every level and councils will need to invest heavily in HR,” he says.

Our case studies highlight three public sector organisations that have faced up to specific recruitment problems and used different initiatives to improve the situation.

Thames Valley Police

Despite the growth in popularity of work-life balance and flexible benefits, the majority of people still choose to take a job because of the salary.

Being able to offer competitive pay is a crucial tool in the recruitment field and many public sector employers have been hamstrung by rigid, centralised pay scales.

The HR team at Thames Valley Police decided to overhaul the pay structure for civilian police staff after suffering high staff turnover and struggling to recruit for a number of key positions.

The old system was based on a number of narrow grades, each with a small number of incremental pay points. The nature of the pay structure did not take into account performance, the local recruitment market or career development.

A new approach was developed in consultation with trade unions and the force’s 2,800 staff in a bid to modernise remuneration and aid recruitment efforts in the notoriously tough South East market.

Steven Chase, head of HR at Thames Valley Police, says the budget is still the same, but the reforms have helped him use the available money in a better way.

“We moved away from narrow pay bands to much broader ones that give us more flexibility. We needed to respond to market activity and stop being constrained by pay, which is sadly often the case in the public sector,” he explains.

“It has really helped recruitment because we’ve been able to adjust our starting salaries to the market. We now have far more flexibility around what we can offer people in what is a very difficult area for recruitment.”

The new pay system has five broad bands with progression based on a matrix that takes several factors into account. A designated market anchor is fed into the matrix, along with the employee’s current position in the pay range.

All staff are given a performance and development reviews and the results are added to the matrix to calculate overall salary.

Chase says the performance element of the structure is also attractive to potential recruits, because individual effort can be rewarded as part of the salary package.

“We wanted to recognise contribution at work and we desperately needed a pay structure that would let us do this. Performance is now a big part of the pay matrix, ” he says.

The new system is still being rolled out across the force, and the programme is almost complete, covering 90% of staff.

South Tyneside Council

Image can be everything in recruitment and letting people know exactly what you can offer them is sometimes as much of a challenge as getting the right policies installed in the first place.

Getting the employer brand right and establishing a reputation as an employer of choice can be even more difficult in a public sector organisation.

Because there are no customers in the traditional sense, councils often need to work even harder to raise awareness of what they can offer potential candidates.

Letting the public know exactly what a career in the public sector can offer has been a key part of South Tyneside Council’s new recruitment process.

Stephen Moir, head of HR, believes it is important to sell the organisation to the general public in the same way private sector employers do.

“A lot of people are unaware of the range of opportunities in the public sector. It’s absolutely crucial we get the message across,” he says.

New recruitment activity has focused more on raising awareness of the organisation and its employers, rather than individual vacancies. The council recently used full-page advertisements in local newspapers describing the benefits of working there and highlighted its investment in staff.

“We have to realise we live in a competi-tive environment, which means we’re vying with other councils, as well as private sector employers, for recruits” he says.

The council employs 8,900 staff in an area of North East England that has traditionally had high levels of deprivation. But, of late, there has also been very strong competition for candidates from other large and powerful councils in the region, such as Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland.

“We’ve worked hard to improve the style and content of our recruitment advertising and make the whole process easier for candidates,” Moir adds.

Reputation management and the employer brand have been key in attracting new staff, so the HR team has been keen to involve existing employees in reshaping the organisation.

Through consultation, the council let employees design the work-life balance programme which led to the introduction of flexi-time with no core hours.

The scheme has been so successful that South Tyneside made history by becoming the only council to jump from a fair to excellent rating in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA).

“This has made a huge difference in recruitment terms because people can see we are now a very effective organisation that is also determined to improve,” says Moir.

He believes the key recruitment challenges for the public sector are around staff recognition and use of the internet.

“Traditionally the public sector hasn’t been that good at recognising and rewarding good performance.

“Moving forward, I think the trend is towards online recruitment because it is so easy for the candidate. The front end is crucial and people need to have a great experience all the way through the process.”

Surrey County Council

Drawing all the recruitment expertise from around an organisation into one centre of excellence, has helped Surrey County Council to reduce vacancy levels, staff hard-to-fill posts and speed up the overall recruitment process.

Three years ago, Surrey County Council had vacancy levels as high as 60% and a recruitment system that was too bureaucratic, lacking in cohesion and painfully slow.

To counter this, the HR team was restructured and the council launched its “people first strategy”, designed to make the organisation put people first in every aspect of its operations.

Recruitment activity was consolidated from across the council services into one recruitment centre of excellence, which now handles 90% of all staffing.

Graham White, head of HR at the council, says the centre has gathered recruitment best practice from around the organisation and made it available to all the council’s services.

“Although we centralised it, we made it everybody’s recruitment team, because it was drawn from all services. Our recruitment and retention levels have vastly improved.

“The real success of the centre has been attracting staff for positions that have traditionally been hard to fill – we now know how to fill them properly,” he says.

The reforms to the recruitment process, coupled with a focus on strategic HR, have had a huge impact on the organisation and its workforce, with vacancy levels slashed from 60% to 9%.

Critical front line services have benefited, with social worker vacancies reduced from 38% to 12% in assessment teams, and from 32% to 9% in children’s teams.

“The design of the system was about lateral thinking. We tried to take what the public sector does best and couple it with some lessons from the private sector. We threw out many of the traditional ways of doing things and started again,” White explains.

HR also put in place a set of principles designed to streamline the whole system and the new rapid recruitment process enabled White to find a new chief executive in just nine weeks. The HR reforms have also helped reduce staff turnover from 25% to 15%, largely thanks to the people focus of the organisation.

White says public sector employers must think carefully about innovative ways of attracting staff and the factors that make a new generation of staff want to work at a particular place.

“The options we can now offer in terms of flexible working, talent management and employee development are very exciting. Work-life balance and the way you manage the working relationship with staff is crucial. We need to recognise that employees want learning, development, new ways of working and a whole range of opportunities.

“People want to learn new skills, be developed and work flexibly Ð not be stuck in an office for 40 years,” says White.



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