The workforce challenges we face cannot be ignored

By Kath O'Dwyer | 18 September 2023

Throughout my varied and long career in local government I have dealt with many challenges, years of austerity and a global pandemic to name but two.

In the face of difficulty, it has always been people that motivate and inspire me to continuing doing what I do, both those living in the places I serve and those I have worked with to do so.

Local government is full of passionate, innovative and dedicated staff who work tirelessly for their communities, and it has been a privilege to lead and work alongside so many of them over the past years.

Our people are our greatest asset, yet all assets need maintenance. And as anyone working in local government knows all too well, widespread challenges of recruitment and retention are currently impacting councils throughout the country. This issue spans a wide range of skills, professions and occupations within councils, as we are all struggling to find and to keep the staff we need to provide the services our residents rely upon.

The scale of the problem is well established: a Solace survey in 2021 found that 33% of chief executives did not have enough staff with the appropriate skills or qualifications to run services properly. And whilst the Government’s recent announcement of funding to boost the social care workforce is welcome, it does nothing to help areas such as environmental health, planning and education, nor indeed the senior leaders we all need to help manage the complex and pressurised services we provide.

The workforce issues we face are multiple and complex, but one aspect that I and other senior leaders are often concerned about is ensuring we are investing in and developing our talent pipeline, so we have the right people coming up through the ranks for the coming years and decades. The recognition that it’s vitally important to nurture the next generation of local government leaders is why the Solace pre-Summit event – the Trailblazers base camp day – is dedicated to just that. Designed specifically for emerging talent in local government and their executive leaders, the day will focus on self-development with a particular emphasis on leadership, and is a fantastic opportunity for learning, development and networking. Places are free for Trailblazers and come with a reduced rate for the rest of the Solace Summit. Space is limited, so secure your ticket now

Investing in the next generation is undoubtedly a crucial part of any approach to tackle the current crisis in the workforce, and many councils are increasingly making use of the National Graduate Development Programme or developing their own apprenticeships and graduate schemes to do so. However, the workforce issues we face spread much wider than the leadership pipeline, with high turnover in senior jobs, a national lack of awareness of the range of career options available in local government, experienced staff retiring early, and an often negative image of councils within communities, to name but a few. And it’s not just about ensuring we have enough people, but also of critical importance that our workforce is suitably diverse and reflects the communities we serve. As a sector we need engaged and motivated teams who understand their communities’ requirements and experiences and reflect the unique makeup of each of our places, which in turn can play a significant role in addressing inequalities and disparities at a local level.

These problems require a coordinated national approach, and Solace has repeatedly raised the workforce challenges facing local government with ministers and civil servants and called for significant action to be taken. Competition with other sectors for skilled and experienced staff is fierce, and with limited budgets, local authorities are often left at a disadvantage. To ensure councils can attract the staff we need to deliver services to a high standard, Solace has asked the Government to take steps such as supporting a major advertising campaign to promote the benefits of working in local government. Yet whilst additional funding and support from Government is crucial, there’s also much that we as councils can – and must – do ourselves at a regional and local level, investing in our workforce to ensure that we’re nurturing new talent and creating a positive organisational culture that supports and develops our existing staff as much as possible.

A committed and capable workforce is at the heart of everything local authorities do, at every level and in every area. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many amazing people during my time in the sector and am confident I will meet and work with many more still. Yet the workforce challenges we face cannot be ignored, both in the present moment and looking ahead.

Kath O’Dwyer is Solace spokesperson for leadership & learning, and chief executive, St Helens BC

The Solace Summit will take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on 17-19 October 2023. For more information and to book your tickets visit the Solace Summit website.

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