Difficulties in recruitment and retention in the public sector have worsened dramatically in the past few years

Difficulties in recruitment and retention in the public sector have worsened dramatically in the past few years. Indications suggest that they will continue to do so, writes Gemma Rogers

Despite expensive recruitment campaigns, expert advice and attractive packages for employees, it would seem that recruiting staff and retaining current employees is no longer a simple task. Public sector employment is not considered to be the privilege it once was, and applicants queuing for public service posts are a thing of the past.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not only the lower paid posts that are encountering these problems but also the most senior executive positions. For example, the medical and educational professions have reached crisis point. Bottom-grade nursing and newly fledged teaching positions remain unfilled, and a shortage in senior management professionals is a growing cause for concern.

Pressure to perform, and the numerous additional restrictions and worries faced by professionals, weigh heavily on the minds of Britain's public service workers. The environment in which they work is currently one of constant change and challenge. The ever-increasing range of government initiatives and audit processes, the escalating trend in league tables, increasingly stretching and sometimes over-ambitious targets, and government pressure not to be seen to fail are all pushing public servants to the limit.

Public expectation increases when new targets are announced. After all, why would government set these targets if they cannot realistically be achieved? In truth, they often cannot. Britain's public sector would benefit greatly from detailed practical guidance in implementing new initiatives rather than high profile statements which merely raise public expectation.

For every organisation rated 'above average' when the league tables are produced, another is judged 'below average'. Dedicated staff working in the latter environment will feel an element of personal failure and a huge negative impact on morale.

An organisation which appears likely to be named and shamed as 'failing' can find it loses its best people, the very staff who might have pulled it through the crisis. No-one wants to be associated with failure. Again, this does not just apply to the front-line workers, but to chief executives and senior managers, who are facing altogether new types of professional hazards.

In the same way that the teacher may face the risk of parental attack in the classroom, the chief executive will often fear reputational attack. This may not come in the form of a physical assault, but it can be career damaging and professionally fatal nonetheless.

The more cases of reputational demise that we see, the greater this problem becomes, with those who are capable of taking on a senior role shying away. This can only damage Britain's public sector.

In essence, the public tendency to blame and claim is threatening both the pride and services of public sector bodies, which are forced to spend time and resources justifying and defending their actions. This, combined with the greater financial freedoms on offer to the best performing organisations, may serve to widen the gulf between the best and worst. What is really needed is a drive to ensure quality public services for all, encouraging organisations to work through their problems, rather than simply condemning them. After all, who wants to work in an organisation which is subject to constant denigration?

A report commissioned by the educational association ECEA in 2001, researching recruitment, demonstrated the scale of the problem. It showed that a fifth of all universities and higher educational colleges experienced difficulties recruiting academic staff. The subject areas most affected were information technology, accountancy, law, engineering, biological sciences, medicine and education.

These are all the core subjects for our public services and, if the right people are not being found for the jobs, the passing on of knowledge to the next generation will be severely limited. This does not augur well for the future availability of trained people to deliver key professional skills.

The same study showed that between 18% and 24% of institutions faced difficulties most of the time in recruiting administrative, technical or clerical staff. Almost half of all universities and higher educational colleges had difficulty most of the time in recruiting manual staff.

Urgent measures are needed to encourage skilled people into professional roles in the public sector to ensure that key services do not suffer. Recent initiatives have been extreme, with all the stops being pulled out. We have seen 'golden hellos' for teachers, people brought in from overseas, the use of civilian patrols to support police and the training up of teaching assistants. But are these elaborate measures a help or a hindrance?

Perhaps we need to focus closer to home, with simple measures that should be a fundamental part of the recruitment and retention process.

  • Ensuring that our staff are valued and respected, and know that they are, will automatically reduce the stress and make the jobs they do seem much more rewarding.
  • Guaranteeing that staff are properly trained to deal with challenges will enable them to be proactive and perhaps even welcome, rather than fear, such challenges.

    Gemma Rogers wrote this in association with ALARM, the national forum for risk management in the public sector. E-mail: gemma@talking-heads.co.uk , www.alarm-uk.com