Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos. Working harder to net the top talentOn 1 Oct 2003 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Shakingup the recruitment and application process can help fill key skills gaps in thepublic sector, writes Nic PatonAfew years ago, a former private sector boss was applying for the post of deputychief executive at a major London council. One evening, he and his competitorsfor the post were invited to a meal with the councillors – nominally, socouncil staff could get to know them, but also so to cast a discerning eye overthe potential candidates. Althoughmore than used to jumping through some unusual hoops to land jobs in theprivate sector, he was somewhat surprised to find himself playing a form ofmusical chairs with his erstwhile rivals. As he and his competitors remainedseated, and after each course, the councillors moved round a place to grill, asit were, a new person in turn.Suchidiosyncratic behaviour may, thankfully, be relatively rare, but it highlightshow seriously the public sector takes the search for talented and skilledindividuals. 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are a major headache within the public sector.Yet all too often, public sector organisations let themselves down by outdated,bureaucratic thinking and processes, a lack of creativity and poor self-image.Astudy by recruitment group Reed, published in July, found public sectororganisations were 9 per cent more likely to experience skills shortages whenrecruiting than their private sector counterparts. A total of 53 per cent facedshortages, compared with 44 per cent of private sector businesses, by and largereversing the situation from the 1990s.Localgovernment (at 61 per cent) was the worst affected, with healthcare on 55 percent, uniformed services on 53 per cent, education at 49 per cent and centralgovernment on 48 per cent.And,according to IRS Employment Review, in a study published the same month, just 7per cent of public sector employers were confident their recruitment problemswould decrease in the next 12 months, with the proportion anticipating no endto their difficulties almost doubling.Lastyear, the Audit Commission was even more gloomy, warning that staff shortageswere reaching crisis point, particularly in London and the South East. Stresswas the number one reason why many were leaving public sector jobs. Demand wasoutstripping supply and the age profile in many professions was becoming acute,with local government in particular dominated by older workers. Whilethe evidence may look grim, the picture on the ground is more complicated,suggests Paul Masterman, head of local government recruitment at TMP Worldwide.OutsideLondon and the South East, for instance, recruiting teachers is not necessarilya problem, whereas hiring an environmental health officer or social worker canbe a trial anywhere.Increasedinvestment in the public sector, as well as better levels of pay and attractionof better job security and pensions than in the private sector have encouragedmore people to look at it as a career. “But we need to look at how weengage with people during the recruitment process and, once we have got someoneon board, how we communicate with them and retain them, and how we reinforcethe employment promise made,” says Masterman. Someof the problems facing the public sector, notably that of an ageing workforceand lack of younger people coming on board, are not sector specific but genericproblems faced by employers as a whole, he points out.Itis only in the last year or so that the public sector has seriously begun totalk about how it can address skills shortages, argues Bill Brace, publicsector manager with Reed. “It is about how organisations promotethemselves as employers of choice, how they brand themselves,” he says.Accordingto the Reed survey, technical and professional skills are commonly in theshortest supply, followed by IT and computer skills, public sector knowledgeand experience, financial skills, management skills, customer service skillsand, finally, those with private sector experience.Publicsector organisations have to work harder to capture the skilled people theyneed. Potential candidates too often rule themselves out because they thinkthey do not have the right skills or experience, so the sector needs to thinkof ways of getting the message across that they should at least try, Bracesuggests.BlackpoolBorough Council is one employer that has taken the initiative, making intensiveuse of new media technology to find individuals from different backgrounds. Ithas partnered with online recruiter Monster.com, and now offers a weblink topotential candidates, where they can download video presentations on what it islike to work for the council. In less than two years, the internet response hasgrown to 30 per cent. TheMetropolitan Police are also taking an innovative approach; having justcompleted a £20m community and race relations training programme to bring raceawareness training to its police and civilian employees. It has also beenmaking great efforts to encourage applications from the wider community in thewake of the Macpherson Report into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.Nationally,forces have made widespread use of advertising in unusual places to attract awider range of recruits. You are now just as likely to find an advert for Essexpolice in the pages of women’s magazine Glamour, as there was recently, as onewithin Police Review or in the Guardian.”Blackpeople never used to see the police force as a career for them, but there havebeen some changes now. We need to learn from that marketing campaign,”admits Andreas Ghosh, head of personnel and development at the London Boroughof Lewisham, and director of recruitment and retention at the Society of ChiefPersonnel Officers.Publicsector employers need to play to their strengths more, he argues. They need tothink about the key words likely to attract people, such as ‘buildingcommunities’, ‘helping the environment’ and ‘working with children’. Recruitersalso need to think laterally, analysing what is attractive about the job, andwhat misconceptions there might be.”Wehave started to break down some of the myths associated with working in thepublic sector, but there is still more to do,” stresses Ghosh. “Weare trying to develop good practice around promotion and recruitment and tryingto get senior managers to remove a lot of the bureaucracy from the recruitmentprocess.”Andthe process is certainly an issue. For applicants from the private sector, thethud of a thick, impersonal briefing pack and application form on to thedoormat is often just the first shock. Formal panel interviews, test days,candidate presentations and a generally much longer time frame can also workagainst public sector organisations. “Ina tight labour market, if you have three or four employers looking for someonewith the same sorts of skills, and for one of them you have to complete afive-page application form and the other you can send in a CV, then the easiestoption will be the CV,” says Mick James, assistant director of recruitmentand careers at the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government (EO).Whenorganisations take between eight and 14 weeks from application to hiring, thenit is not surprising they lose talented applicants to faster-moving privatesector firms, he adds. The difficulty is balancing the demands for publicsector probity against the need to be efficient and move fast.Yet,when public sector organisations do try to rebrand themselves and streamlinetheir application process, they can be hugely successful. The EO’s nationalgraduate development programme, for instance, is to double its intake afterjust one year of operation.Akey idea of the EO scheme is to try to make local government a more attractivecareer option for younger people, shaking off its image of elderly pen-pushersand to ‘sell’ the range and scope of careers on offer. About2,600 people applied for just 50 places on offer on the programme lastSeptember, up from 2,100 the year before. The number of posts available is nowto be increased from 500 to 1,000. What’smore, about 85 per cent of these applications were made online, making theprocess more efficient and more candidate friendly.”Whydon’t local authorities make more of their final salary pension schemes? Thepackage they offer can be a very attractive option to someone in their late40s. Or job security? Where else could you go to work in an organisation thatin most towns and cities is the largest employer, with a huge span ofopportunities?” asks James.Forthe past five years, for instance, Nottingham City Council has been working toboost 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 formfilling. Sofar, some 82 people have been recruited into permanent posts through thescheme, with 66 per cent aged between 18 and 24. High-profileadvertisingTheDepartment of Health, too, has been working hard to attract nurses back intothe profession, with high-profile advertising campaigns. It is trying a similarapproach with social work, setting up a national campaign to raise the profileof social work as a potential career. Thedifficulty here is that professions dealing with mental health are not seen asglamorous, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, and often get apoor press when things go wrong. Even in the medical profession, psychiatry isoften thought of as a poor relation to things like surgery.Astudy by the centre published in April suggests there is still too muchreliance on recruiting staff through conventional training and education, withtoo little done to retain existing staff or use skills more creatively.TheNHS 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 tackleskills gaps in specific sectors of the economy, are a key part of theGovernment’s Skills Strategy unveiled in July. Atthe launch of the strategy, education secretary Charles Clarke pledged a rapidexpansion of the council network to “identify, map and meet key skillsneeds in employment sectors”.Centralgovernment, too, has its own skills issues, in particular, how to address ashortage of skilled lawyers, economists and accountants, argues NickyOppenheimer, a partner at recruitment firm Odgers, Ray & Berndston.Whilepay is still an issue, the focus has been on the challenges and career rewardsthat come with such posts, she says. “People are beginning to realise itis intellectually fascinating and stimulating, and the fact they are at theheart of things can be attractive,” she says.Forpublic sector HR professionals, argues the EO’s James, the challenge is tostart thinking bigger. It is up to HR to lead the debate, he suggests, and tolook at where recruitment and retention strategies are within the biggerpicture and study where they need to positioned in the future.HRhas a pivotal role to play when it comes to attracting skilled and talentedpeople. It can keep its head down and do nothing, or it can act as therecruitment champion, speaking to and cajoling the elected members and drivingforward new attitudes.”HRneeds to be challenging managers who want to do it a certain way because thatis the way they have always done it. It has got to start challengingtraditions,” James argues.Casestudy: Kent County CouncilTargeting the local communityKentCounty Council has found itself in the enviable position of being inundatedwith applications for social worker positions, thanks to an innovative schemecalled Ready for Practice, launched four years ago.Thescheme is designed to ‘grow your own’ social workers by targeting the localcommunity for social work jobs. Local people are taken on and trained, whilebeing paid by the council, so as not to put off applicants worried aboutattracting 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 allpaid for.Thescheme, developed in partnership with Christ Church College, Canterbury, hasbeen widely marketed through local newspaper advertisements. The council knewit was on to something when, in its first year, there were 1,600 enquiries and650 applications for the initial 14 places. This year alone, it has attractedsome 400 to 500 applicants for 40 places. “Wehave been swamped by applications each year, and overwhelmed by the number ofpeople who want to come on to the scheme,” says Frank Nichols, head ofprofessional development at the council. Thevacancy rate for children and family social work positions is now just 7 percent, way below average for the South East, he adds.Akey element has been promoting the fact there will be continued opportunitiesfor development and training, not just for the basic two years. There is a10-point plan staff care package and a new career-grade structure.Thecareer-grade structure is linked to a competency framework that allows staff todevelop from newly-qualified to senior practitioner. The council has also triedto minimise bureaucracy and looked at benefits such as health promotion.”Bytrying to get local people, you have the advantage that they are less likely tomove elsewhere and, politically, it is a very good thing for our electedmembership to support. It is an investment in local people,” says Nichols.”Wehave tried to make Ready to Practice our Kent brand and have made a big playabout the scheme. Being trained as a qualified social worker is just part ofthe package,” he adds.Therehas also been a push to attract existing staff who might have always wanted tomove 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 hasthe Department of Health, which has visited the council to speak to the team,Nichols adds.