Skip to main content

Huge challenges – but opportunity knocks

Written by: Linda Todd is a director of public services procurement at Hays
Published on: 5 Apr 2024

Despite the essential and often excellent services local authorities deliver up and down the country, it is proving a difficult time to attract new talent into the sector. The need for innovation and transformation has arguably never been greater as the sector struggles to balance the budgets on several critical fronts.

Acknowledging the need to reduce costs and partner more effectively, commercial teams are among the few areas beyond social care where local authorities are seeing growth. There is an appetite from progressive councils to blend private sector talent with established public sector professionals, creating commercial functions with greater organisational impact, using better data to improve decision making and managing a wider eco-system of commercial partners. Additionally, the pathway transitioning from the private to the public sector as a commercial professional can be easier to traverse with support provided by councils and their agencies.

The role of commercial professionals across local government is changing as the sector evolves and matures. Within the sector, the ability to run end to end tenders and understand EU procurement policy were once among the most desirable skills for procurement professionals – and while elements remain important, the landscape is changing from procurement being a process-led governance team into a more strategic function. This means that greater accountability for strategic development, delivery, corporate planning, and alliance building across a wider ecosystem of suppliers are becoming increasingly important. This shift has also made the idea of commercial professionals moving seamlessly between sectors more attractive in the quest to develop new skills and broaden professional expertise.

These changes will continue with the new Procurement Act going live from September. This will likely pose both recruitment challenges across the sector and opportunities for retention and talent development at multiple levels throughout commercial teams. More compact local authorities and housing associations voice concerns over increased resource tension resulting from reporting requirements flowing out of the post-Brexit legislative change. However, this does create a catalyst to draw new entrants into the profession from a wider talent pool who could support more effective succession planning, improve inclusion and leadership development across local government in the longer term.

The demand for commercial professionals across the public sector is on the rise, particularly within central government where recruitment of contract managers and supplier relationship managers has increased by almost 70% over the last 12 months, as large-scale public procurement teams shape their commercial functions ahead of the new legislation. With local government an adjacent sector and target for campaigns of this nature, it is likely gaps will continue to emerge as we head towards September. This has already seen an increase in the volume of interim and temporary roles registered with local government clients to cover gaps at multiple levels in a market that is highly fluid.

Given the challenges, standing out from the crowd means individual councils are having to work harder to attract commercial leaders and future leaders with high development potential. On a positive note, candidate confidence is at a high as we move further into 2024, with our procurement team at Hays seeing a 20+% increase from 2023 of experienced professionals seeking career conversations, exploring what their next role looks like and being open minded to the sectors that might include.  This is good news for organisations who have vacancies or need to expand and grow their teams over the year ahead.

Our recent Salary Guide research showed that over the next 12 months, one in three commercial individuals will consider looking for a new opportunity with the average time in a role being around three years. If retention isn’t high on your agenda currently given the backdrop of consultations and cuts, then it certainly should be. Salary, investment in professional development and social value are the top reasons driving commercial individuals to look beyond their current opportunity.

While salary is still the main driver of employee movement, other factors are increasingly taking centre stage. Having a strong organisational purpose, clear pathways for career progression, flexible working models, a diverse and inclusive culture, and a defined commitment to sustainability are crucial ways to enhance an organisation’s employee value proposition for both current employees and future joiners. Professionals also look for employers whose values match theirs, and organisations with self-defined social impact and clear vision statements.

Combined with the right attraction solutions, organisations may find recruiting for commercial professionals over the next 12 months more positive than in 2023. However, in January, we ran a poll of public sector commercial professionals where 82% expressed an interest in moving into the private sector. Ultimately, it’s vital to engage, inspire and develop your teams as an essential pillar of your retention strategy. Some will move on but give them a positive exit and they might just return.

Linda Todd is a director of public services procurement at Hays