What are the problems?
Across our expert panel and senior hiring managers from a variety of specialisms many of the talent problems being faced were universal. A lack of qualified talent entering the workforce was a problem for all, which impacted the succession planning for an aging workforce.
For some specialists, such as legal, public realm, housing and finance, finding individuals with both technical skillsets, local government experience and leadership capacity is tricky.
For Nicolina Cooper, interim assistant director public realm at Havering LBC, ‘there’s an obvious dearth of engineering talent’, and in finance Sara Pitt, assistant director of finance at Birmingham City Council, outlined how the shortage of talent was leading to increased use of interims.
The public-private pay disparity was clearly leading to many candidates being lost to commercial roles due to heightened salary. Many of the panel felt that the image of the sector needed review – questions were asked: Is local government ‘sexy’ enough to attract talent? and is it doing enough to develop a diverse workforce to represent its diverse communities?
Our session was designed to focus on resourcing solutions, and each of the panellists shared what is working for them.
For Southwark’s director of law and governance, Doreen Forrester-Brown, her legal recruitment has been aided by a ‘grow your own’ approach. The department has kick-started internship and graduate programmes, and supplemented these with mentoring, coaching and clear guidance on career pathways. These pathways separate management from professional skills – for instance, specialist lawyers and advocate roles.
For Sara Pitt, being creative with career development helps in finance too. At Birmingham, they have a clear focus on the learning and development needs of their existing workforce. Secondment arrangements have been put in place to bring outside knowledge back into the council. They too offer apprenticeships up to graduate level, to grow their own talent.
In Nicolina’s opinion the work needs to begin even earlier than apprenticeship level. In schools and colleges at career advisory stage, local government must be promoted as a career. In her words ‘people simply do not know our jobs exist’. It’s also ever-more important for her that when seeking candidates there is active outreach and engagement with individuals with protected characteristics.
HR has an organisation-wide view of talent gaps so Ed Howarth, head of HR services from East Sussex, highlighted some potential solutions for hard-to-fill roles across departments. As he said ‘there are people out there doing these roles, so we need to think more about how we attract them to work in the public sector and for our organisations’.
In Penna’s experience this will inevitably require a longer-term strategic and targeted sourcing solution to build talent pools, relationships and brand recognition.
For Ed, COVID and the increased potential of hybrid working means there’s opportunities to attract and source candidates from a wider geography than before. COVID has also raised the profile of the public sector and its work, and Ed concludes: ‘There’s never been more interest in, and understanding of, the impact of public service delivery – we must capitalise on this energy.’
There are many benefits to working in local government; the political element, the opportunity to serve a community, seeing the difference your working week has on a place, work-life balance, pension… the list goes on.
But most of our panel noted that there’s something missing in local government recruitment – a unified, USP explaining why a candidate who could defect to the private sector, should go public instead. This stands for existing employees too.
As Ed put it: ‘We’re facing less of a talent gap and more of an attraction deficit – why aren’t candidates drawn to a career in councils?’ Doreen agreed, stating: ‘Local government generally requires a recruitment campaign to develop a better understanding of the crucial role councils plays in our lives, create transparency and promote our offer of a satisfying and worthwhile career.’
There’s an opportunity emerging from COVID. People are more connected to their ‘place’ and more interested than ever in making a difference to it. Councils could do with capitalising on this to improve its brand and make great hires. Whether this is a strong organisational employer value proposition, or a sector-wide coordinated and creative ‘sell’ of the benefits of working in local government… it’s worth a conversation.
Time to talk
We want to continue the conversation on how, in partnership, we can overcome the sector’s recruitment challenges across middle management and for harder to fill posts, so please get in touch to tell us your thoughts, and share your experiences with hard-to-fill roles.
Jon Dilling and Gemma Matin are Sourcing Leads at Penna
Penna thanks the panel: Sara Pitt, of Birmingham City Council, Edward Howarth of East Sussex CC, Doreen Forrester-Brown of Southwark LBC and Nicolina Cooper of Havering LBC. And thanks to everyone who joined the webinar and shared their experience.