The public sector people crisis

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The public sector has not addressed skills and staffing issues predicted years ago, and now faces a people crisis

Nine years ago the Audit Commission’s Tomorrow’s People report highlighted that unless local authorities started to plan for the long term there would be significant skills shortages. With a predominantly ageing workforce and management entrenched in the 40 to 60 age group it stated that government needed to attract younger workers for succession planning.

Fast forward to today and what has happened to address these predictions? In truth – very little. We see local government experiencing substantial shortages of the very people the report highlighted. Our own evidence as temporary labour supply management specialists to the public sector also shows a continued trend for hiring older temporary workers rather than investing in the public sector managers of tomorrow.

Temporary staff are an important element of the public sector’s workforce. We increasingly see their use to cover for permanent vacancies because the sector can’t attract the right skills as part of a permanent workforce. This is supported by the latest Recruitment & Employment Confederation/KPMG report, which cites tight candidate availability that leads to skills shortages and pay increases.

The reason we are in this people crisis is because there has been too much short-termism placed on public sector skills and not enough placed on careful demand planning. Other cracks are starting to show – such as the ‘excessive’ pay going to medical locums, or the lack of control of care staffing requirements.

The tender processes behind some temporary staffing frameworks created for the public sector are also telling. Appointing recruitment agency suppliers to frameworks is often 100% best price-based, with no consideration made for skills or candidate availability. While highly skilled and competent workers may well have been supplied through these frameworks, the mentality and process behind this area of public sector procurement appears to have nothing to do with securing high quality talent.

What should be done to alleviate these issues? There is not an immediate solution to the problem, but there has to be a fundamental shift in attitude towards talent acquisition and development. The public sector needs to be able to attract the best candidates and work to inject new interest in these hard to fill roles. Suggested practical measures include:

  • Develop your employer brand: highlight the full range of benefits of working in the public sector. Full package details, working environment, career progression, training opportunities matter as much or even more than pay.
  • Plan for your 2020 workforce, and your 2025 workforce: think about the services that the council will be delivering over the next ten years, what level of employee will be reaching retirement age and where the gaps are.
  • Understand your temporary workforce: temporary workers and interims are there to fill gaps – their prolonged or increased usage would tend to imply that you should start investing in permanent headcount in this area.
  • Invest in training: to train new entrants into public sector, and to develop your current people assets.

A decade on from the Tomorrow’s People report the public sector has not addressed the talent issues predicted and is now facing a severe people crisis. And it is a lack of people and skills that will be the biggest factor affecting the public sector’s ability to deliver on its promises and objectives. Too much ‘stop gapping’, a lack of long-term demand planning, and heavily price-weighted temporary recruitment decisions have all exacerbated the situation. The public sector has to hang up its reactionary hat and start planning for the future.

Jon Milton is business development director at Comensura

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