Five priorities to solve the workforce crisis

By Gordon McFarlane | 18 April 2023

At a recent roundtable event, chief executives and senior managers from councils across England discussed their most pressing workforce issues and explored how we might address these as a sector.

Five key priorities emerged from this discussion that will enable councils to fill current capacity and skills gaps and start to build the foundations for tomorrow’s workforce.

With an ageing workforce the first priority is to have a plan in place to retain workers aged 50 plus and entice those that have retired but wish to work again to return. In some local authorities as many as half to 70% of the workforce could chose to retire soon, presenting an immediate risk to capacity.

Aligned to this risk, a female dominated workforce increases the likelihood of losing staff early. As a country we still lack the infrastructure that enables people with care responsibilities to continue working. In this situation it is predominantly women who are forced out of the workforce to care for children or sick relatives.

A second priority is to stabilise the current recruitment market particularly for hard to fill roles. The success of work undertaken by the London Improvement and Innovation Alliance to stop councils competing against each other for talent demonstrates two points; the power of councils working together to address supply issues, and that stabilising the market enables councils to develop a clear picture of what is causing specific supply challenges. In this case, the issue is insufficient numbers of qualified children’s social workers, and the priority is seeking to address the root causes rather than continuously react to market instability.

A third priority is to develop effective national approaches to attract staff from specific professions. Recruitment campaigns aimed at promoting a region or employer have their place but those targeted at a particular profession are more effective – for example when seeking to attract lawyers or accountants.

A fourth priority is to build knowledge and experience that we currently may not have but need to deliver on – such as climate and digital/IT agendas. Salary-wise councils are unlikely to be able to compete with the private sector. Instead we should look for ways to collaborate cross-sector to grow our own capability.

Looking ahead, our fifth and perhaps most pressing priority is to attract young blood. With this in mind, we need to start thinking more like marketing colleagues and develop a clear brand proposition that can compete with other public services. As an example, a nationally driven graduate and apprentice recruitment scheme would enable councils to promote the wide range of careers available in local government as successfully as other public services such as the Royal Navy and NHS.

Stepping back, it is clear doing nothing is not an option for local government. Without national intervention the workforce crisis is likely to develop into an emergency. These are challenges no single authority can solve working alone. We need to come together as a sector to find solutions and where appropriate lobby government for funding and resource to deliver sector-wide initiatives. Leaders around the table made clear their desire to continue working together for this purpose.

To this end, the roundtable host, Commercial Services Group, is planning future events. If you would like to join the discussion contact to express an interest.

Gordon McFarlane is Public Services People Managers Association president and assistant director at Leicestershire CC


• The 2023 PPMA conference will be held on 26-28 April at the Hilton Metropole (NEC) in Birmingham. Look out for a special conference supplement in next week’s edition of The MJ

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