A recent REC membership survey suggests that there’s trouble ahead. Close to 9 out of 10 agencies supplying workers into healthcare, social care, education, and local government services reported they were finding it hard to fill vacancies. Over half said they found it most difficult to recruit skilled and experienced staff. As the labour market tightens and demand for public services increases the situation may be about to get a lot worse.
The warnings of a skills shortage are hardly new. Back in 2006 the Leitch review of the nation’s long term skill needs concluded that “our skills are not world class and we run the risk that this will undermine the UK’s long-term prosperity”. There’s been some progress since then, but nothing like the step change that Lord Leitch called for. Indeed, we still have neither the quantity nor the quality of necessary vocational skills.
This is not just a problem for business, it’s a huge concern for the public sector. The shortage of nurses and other key NHS professionals threatens patient care. Latest research from the Care Quality Commission showed that 20 per cent of nursing homes also lack enough staff on duty to ensure good and safe care. Lives may not be at risk because of the shortages of teachers, town planners, accountants and IT workers, but the inability to recruit wears away our public services and damages our prosperity.
Continued austerity, public sector pay restraint and the government’s determination (come what may) to “roll-back the state” is pushing many public services to breaking point. Morale in the public sector is at rock bottom and as wage growth elsewhere picks up what is now a trickle of people exiting public services could soon become a mass exodus. This is surely a false economy. Public agencies are struggling to cope without key personnel and having to pay more to fill vacancies. At some point the government is going to have to admit to voters that services are worsening because of a failure to invest in tomorrow’s workforce. Telling people the problem can be solved by relying more on immigrant workers won’t wash.
So what’s to be done? First, ministers must stop bashing public sector workers and begin a positive dialogue about pay and rewards. Public sector employees (whether inhouse or agency staff) care deeply about what they do and rightly demand respect. Pay cuts, recruitment freezes and attacking the unions that are there to represent them is hardly a morale booster! Second, government should listen to what REC members and HR managers are all saying – please train more new entrants and invest in the skills that are needed. This isn’t rocket science, but it won’t happen in a vacuum. As the REC survey showed, there has to be a significant improvement in workforce planning and procurement.
Most recruitment agencies think longer-term solution will help public sector organisations overcome candidate shortages. That won’t be cheap or easy. But, it can be done. The skills warning light is flashing; for government to carrying on ignoring it risks turning a recruitment crisis into a catastrophe.