Tackling skills and supply deficits

By Ian Thompson | 14 December 2021

Severe workforce shortages are widespread across the country, with employers from the public, private and voluntary sector all reporting a lack of people to fill key roles.

In the public sector, many areas of local government are affected by staff shortages. This means some departments are under pressure to function properly which, in turn, can have an impact on our communities.

The Local Government Association’s (LGA) workforce surveys consistently show that more than 40% of councils report minor disruption to their services overall as a result of not having the right staff (in terms of numbers or skills to meet demand) to run normal services. A further 16% report moderate or severe disruption for this reason.

This is not just about a skills gap – from roles in social care, to the NHS, from construction to digital skills, there simply are not enough people to fill the roles. It is not a new problem either: we have been finding quick fixes for a number of years.

We know that young people will have many careers throughout their working life and that we need to attract more people into the public sector.

We need to convince them that shaping their environment, creating quality design, being a property developer, running decarbonised transport systems and disrupting crime are all opportunities that can meet their aspirations.

They can then work for local authorities, major construction companies and consultancies. The key is to grow the staff pool nationally and make movement within the industry easy.

How we address these challenges is key – we have never tackled it collectively before and we need to explore how a collaborative, whole-system approach could help solve the problem.

For ‘place’ skills (planning, transport, the economy and the environment) the private and public sector must come together to tackle the challenges.

How exciting it would be in the wake of COP26 to set out a place industry career path for young people who want to make a difference, regardless of the sector.

There are actions we can take collectively to do this, based on promoting a single ‘place industry’ approach.

We must set out a core set of skills with as much focus on behavioural attributes as technical ones. We must back this up with a work- based training programme common across the place industry recognised by the professional associations and supported by the training providers.

There are many examples of local approaches to this, but to tackle the issue at pace and scale a sector approach is required.

We also need to consider our traditional routes into roles. The industry, and particularly the public sector, should review its recruitment processes.

We need to keep job descriptions simple and focused on outcomes, ensuring flexibility and adaptability is at the heart of recruitment. This will help us fill gaps in the workforce. For example, roles can often be filled – with appropriate training – by people who have different backgrounds, with different and diverse skills, rather than insisting on a traditional set of ‘essential’ criteria.

Other gaps may also be filled by people working on a more flexible basis, providing extra people and capacity for short-term projects or specific projects.

Fortunately, the culture between private and public sector is becoming blurred, with many people switching between the two. This emphasises the importance of transferable skills, embedding them into our job descriptions and highlighting them in our recruitment processes.

Post-pandemic, we also have opportunities. Over the past 18 months there has been a wave of people changing jobs, looking for new challenges, seeking a different work/life balance and expressing a desire to make a difference. This mobility in highly skilled individuals can be tapped into, to help provide a solution in ‘hard-to-recruit’ roles in the shorter-term.

At the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), our next step is to bring together relevant collective bodies, including ADEPT members and partner organisations, to confirm the scale of the task and work on solutions.

If we can develop a ‘Centre of Excellence’ programme, to promote the place sector and form a gateway into the industry, we will have made a start. We need to engage consistently with the formal education sector, think more creatively about skills and be more confident about our own people, unlocking our talent and promoting from within where we can.

Not tackling the problem poses a significant threat – not just to the future success of our industry, but to the future of our communities, our places and our environment.

Ian Thompson is chair of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport Sustainable Growth Board and is Buckinghamshire Council’s corporate director for planning, growth and sustainability


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