The forces shaping public sector hiring

The public sector is a generic term for a wide range of employers spanning the civil service, education, prisons, police, fire, the NHS and local councils. The ONS data for June 2014 states that nearly 5.5 million people work in the public sector, which is slightly less than in 2013.
The NHS is still the largest public employer with around 29 per cent of the 5.5 million followed closely by education. The civil service and local councils have been gradually reducing in size by 159,000 between January 2009 and June 2014. The public sector is often collectively the largest employer in some regions or cities ranging from 15 per cent in the East of England, London and the South East to the highest of 27 per cent in Northern Ireland.
It is still a huge workforce for a population of 64.1 million, but this seriously underplays the role that the private and charity sector partners increasingly have in delivering and supporting public services. We are also seeing a variety of trading companies, including employee mutuals, emerging to deliver public services.   

The total workforce is therefore now much more complex and covers many more people and jobs that you might imagine and is very hard to actually define.
So, how much does all that matter? Well not too much in my view. What does matter is how good the services are for those who make use of them and whether they offer value for money. It also matters how those workforces are recruited, managed, treated and developed so that they are motivated and committed to the people they serve.
The sourcing of talent for all sectors is becoming challenging once again as the private sector escalates its recruitment activity. My own sector, local government, is now experiencing a steady ‘leakage’ to other sectors on the back of continued pay restraint and budget cuts.

In many locations and for some roles, where demand and supply are out of equilibrium, the challenges and impacts on services are much more acute. I have heard of services where as many as 70 per cent of roles are covered by agency workers because they cannot recruit.
The response is not just about recruitment and attraction. Image is an issue for the public sector when social workers, care workers and hospitals come under the spot when things go wrong. That is because people and organisations in the public sector deal with life and death issues everyday – and sometimes they get it spectacularly wrong but on most days for most people it is right. Change is coming and culture and performance are now in the spot light much more.

Demographic issues
Services are being redesigned around the ‘customers’ within the budgets that are available. From where I sit public service is generally getting its act together for the better. However, there are still big questions about affordability given the demographic challenges that we all face.
The demography challenges also affect workforces in two ways. Firstly, how can we find enough care workers to meet the rising demands for support at home? Secondly, older workers are now the fastest growing age group in the national labour market. By 2020 it is predicted that a third of workers will be aged over 50 and offer a ‘vast and untapped talent’ according to the Government’s recently launched Fuller Working Lives initiative. This will cause us all to re-think our workforce strategies for the future.  

At the other end of the age spectrum many young people are struggling to get into work. The recent outcomes from research by the Princes Trust with the HSBC stated that three quarters of British businesses believed that the UK would be in a skills crisis within three years. A third of businesses are already struggling to fill entry-level roles and being urged to invest in vocational training. As the demand for skills picks up in the wider economy the public sector will face even more recruitment challenges. In my own organisation and an area of relatively low unemployment, we are already experiencing difficulty in recruiting for roles at all levels: from catering assistants to social workers and for senior roles like directors. Commissioning and commercial skills are also in short supply.

Recruitment tactics
We need to really understand the local and national markets we are working in and also try to plot what the future holds. So work force planning and big data, and understanding how to shape recruitment markets are emerging as key skills for HR teams. For many local councils the most acute challenge is the recruitment of social workers. There are plenty, although not nearly enough, in the agency supply chain enticed by the offer of higher pay, albeit in interim roles and with the ability to walk into another council if things do not work out. Higher case-loads on the back of cases like ‘Baby P’ and poor Ofsted inspections in some areas have increased demand and there are just not enough social workers to go around. The short-term response has been spiralling pay rates and pitching one council offer against others in the market for both permanent and agency workers.
Some unsavoury behaviours have also emerged as recruiters deploy desperate tactics to talk to and then recruit social workers. None of this is sustainable in terms of budgets and the quality of service delivery to vulnerable children and adults, who get allocated yet another social worker every time one moves on.
So how can we tackle this? The solution is complex and requires collaboration between employers and agencies over a period of time to get the whole market back in equilibrium. A few councils are trying to work together to solve this, whilst a minority are exploring the idea of setting up their own agency for social workers, which will not in itself solve the issues of under supply.     
The 21st century public sector workforce is emerging as much ‘blended’ than ever before across different employers focused on joined up delivery of services to people. It also includes ‘volunteers’ working alongside paid employees and tapping into areas of talent that may have been ignored before. Roles are being redefined as more multi-skilled rather than relying on professional boundaries for everything. This will take time and needs good managers and a supportive culture.

Shift in recruitment
So what of recruitment? Well, it will still be important. Technology is enabling a huge shift in approach for the better but we need to remember that in times of high demand and low supply that the people will choose their employer with care. They need a positive experience from the very first human or electronic contact right through the recruitment process, induction and their subsequent employment. Human contact, team working, feeling valued and empowered, and culture remain key to attracting and retaining people. Most people come into the public sector because they want feel part of something worthwhile and this will not change.
So, for me, the issue is not about recruitment as such. It is really about what value we place on future talent to deliver and shape public services for now and the future. It is about how we convince people of all ages, skill levels and backgrounds that working in the public sector is dynamic and interesting. It is a choice worth making and one that I am still proud of 26 years later.

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