How to solve the talent crisis

By Gordon McFarlane | 08 February 2023

The UK is short of workers. At the end of last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that, in all but a handful of industry sectors, there were tens of thousands of vacancies unfilled, with vacancy rates running between 2.5 and 6.7 per 100 employees.

What the Bank of England says is bad for the economy, is equally bad for the public sector.

To fill the 41,000 vacancies we must compete against every other sector of the economy at a time when private sector employers have the freedom to increase pay rates well above what is on offer in the public sector.

It is not just the number of vacancies that is an issue, but the breadth. The shortage of health and social care workers is well-documented – 208,000 vacancies in this critical area – but we now see vacancies in roles such as drivers or waste site operatives as well as in the ‘traditional’ hard-to-fill roles in legal, IT, planning and engineering.

At the same time, turnover rates are on the rise. While 8-10% turnover is arguably healthy, we are now seeing voluntary turnover figures in the mid-teens or even higher. This adds not only challenges when recruiting, but puts even more pressure on the remaining workforce.

It is, without doubt, one of the toughest environments we have faced as a sector. Nonetheless there is much that HR teams can do to help their organisations navigate this talent and skills crisis.

This should start with redefining the talent pools where they look for people. For some roles, remote or hybrid work offers the opportunity to attract candidates from beyond our traditional hunting grounds and to seek candidates in different regions where opportunities for career progression may not exist.

For other roles, international recruitment may be an option. We are seeing this in social work, and it could extend to other job areas. It is certainly a model which has worked for colleagues in the education sector and in the NHS.

We cannot ignore pay, which is such an important factor across the board right now. While we are constrained by pay grades and pay deals, there is the scope to offer retention payments, market supplements or golden hellos. Some might argue these are an expensive sticking plaster, but it is equally the case that if we want to recruit and retain people, we have to seriously consider what the market and economy is telling us.

We owe it to ourselves and the sector to pay close attention to our employer brand. Councils are great places to work, offering diverse opportunity with meaningful careers and progression for those who want it. Individually, we should do as much as we can to position ourselves as the local employer of choice and market our unique employee value proposition.

We can also get behind the campaign – #Lovelocalgov – where we are lobbying government to acknowledge the importance of the sector and to assist with national campaigns for shortage roles and examine how to resolve systemic blockages.

Last of all, we need to invest time and thought into workforce planning, not just to help us through the immediate crisis but where we can, for the medium and long- term.

If, as we design and reconfigure our organisations, we can build in job enrichment, career pathways and re-scoped roles – including where we automate and digitise more basic tasks, we will stand a better chance of attracting and retaining the people we need.

Gordon McFarlane is PPMA president and assistant director at Leicestershire CC


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HR Pay Council staff