Labour pains alleviated

Recruitment and retention problems dog most
public sector agencies, but there are ways both to encourage valued
staff to stay and to provide short-term and special project cover,
says Anthony Douglas.

Government targets are getting tougher. One of
the NHS Plan targets is a big increase in GPs. Yet in many parts of
the country, half the local GPs will be retiring in the next 10
years. My own GP tells me it is proving harder to find a locum or
new partner, even in more affluent parts of the country.

Indeed, I know of no public sector agency
locally that does not have a recruitment and retention problem. A
team manager I know recruits staff from as far afield as Iceland,
all of them bright but none with UK experience. His best staff can
go anywhere. He tends not to confront issues in case his staff
leave as a result.

Most public sector agencies are now at full
strength with little, if any, new strategic capacity to respond to
an ambitious Labour government’s second term. There is a will, but
not a way. Faced with this structural problem, what can
organisations do?

The first measure is to pay your staff the
going rate. You will also have to pay some staff at the top of the
relevant pay scale, whereas a few years ago you might have said
“no”. You may have to pay an enhanced package to attract or retain
some staff whose value is priceless. They will usually repay your
generosity with first-rate output and extra loyalty – for a while,
at least.

However, while money is a key motivator, it is
not everything. There has never been a time when looking after
staff mattered more. Employers have always had to behave better in
a time of near full employment, and now is no exception. Staff will
not stick around if they face bullying, racism, lack of support or
an unregulated workload, or are marooned in a dangerous team
without cover. Unfortunately, the more stretched and stressed out
the agency, the more likely it is to spend its time firefighting
rather than dealing with underlying problems.

Sessional staff, as with independent social
workers, can cover all sorts of gaps, from assessments through to
court reports and complaints investigations. Ex-managers, let go
before their “sell-by date”, can do a day or two here and there on
special projects or covering thorny issues where either the
capacity or the ability isn’t there in the permanent staff group.
If you give them a contract, the better specialist agencies can
supply staff for a particular job, or at least are more likely to
than any old agency you ring up on the off-chance they have got

Independent workers also like to build up a
portfolio of organisations they prefer working for, for much the
same reasons permanent staff choose to stay or go. These
“independents” will often sign short-term contracts at cheaper
rates than if you go on using them and paying them on a daily
basis. It is hard to recruit permanent staff on conventional
short-term contracts, so these days you generally need to offer
either a permanent job or a specially constructed short-term

Independent or freelance staff can bring
experience into the agency that can be lacking in the permanent
staff group, where increasingly staff are younger and less
experienced – a trend intensified by experienced staff preferring
to go off to new project-based jobs created by “sexy” government
initiatives. The projects are filling up, leaving the frontline

Recruiters also need to build up their
networks to supplement traditional methods. As shortlists get
thinner, the social care world has to adapt to this seller’s
market. However, equal opportunities policies have to be
safeguarded, as recruitment based on networking can too easily
become recruitment based on who you know, rather than being a
transparent and fair process.

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