How to attract and retain a skilled workforce

  • Increasing job opportunities may not be good news for the public sector
  • Austerity measures are eroding the historical advantages of working in the public sector
  • We look at the importance of local governments recruiting and retaining the skilled workers they need

Reports of private sector job openings soaring to a 14-year high earlier this year may be good news for the country, but not so great for the public sector.

Increased opportunities signal more movement in employment, with high-quality local government employees being lured by job choices and higher salaries elsewhere – making recruitment from the private sector ever more difficult.

It comes at a time when local government is experiencing its own skill shortages. An ageing employee population and voluntary redundancies is creating gaps in public sector workforces that are hard to fill.

Local government is under pressure from a lack of workforce flexibility, as cuts are made to posts and contracts to meet savings targets. Voluntary redundancy policies may benefit employees, but can be a threat to retaining the skills councils really need.

Leaving public sector

In a growing national job market, people with essential skills and good qualifications invariably leave the public sector for private sector jobs offering cost-of-living salary rises.

Employees with non-transferable skills or low skill sets, and those who have only public sector experience, may be more inclined to stay. But this makes it difficult for local authorities to retain the breadth of workforce they need.

With an emphasis on information technology development, more complex procurement and partnership projects, and further commercialisation of public services, specialists are in demand. Local government is now in direct competition for people with different skill sets to those found in the sector traditionally.

Migration of employees from private to public sector is very low, not helped by lower salaries and pay freezes. And while historically, job security, good pensions, flexible working and supported training, brought skilled workers into the public sector, austerity measures are now eroding these advantages.

Growing challenge

The 2014 New World of Risk: Change For Good report from Zurich Municipal and MORI (based on interviews with local authority senior managers, risk management professionals and citizens), shows workforce issues as the third highest risk. This is up from fifth place in 2010.

Attracting and retaining a skilled workforce is a serious risk that senior managers in particular recognise with increasing concern.

Paul Tombs, Head of Public Services and Infrastructure for Zurich Municipal, says: “Maintaining a strong workforce is a growing challenge that local authority leaders do not feel well equipped to handle.”

Lack of skills

It is not just local authority leaders who feel uneasy about this challenge. The Guardian’s 2014 Recruiting for Today’s Public Sector report found: “Public sector workers themselves believe fresh talent is needed to breathe new life into leadership roles. Respondents also highlighted a lack of technology and commercial management skills within public services – skills that are readily available in the private sector.”

This echoes a 2014 report, which states: “Leadership, IT and commercial management (for example, procurement and negotiating contracts) are the skills public sector workers think are most lacking among colleagues: reflecting skills often associated with the private sector.”

Workforce planning has to become a strategic priority for local authorities

Paul Tombs, Head of Public Services and Infrastructure for Zurich Municipal

Criticism has been levelled at the public sector for not planning for, or responding to, this challenge. The construction industry in particular has urged councils to take on the necessary expertise to aid planning and commissioning for large-scale community development projects.

With the onus on local authorities to provide affordable housing, to help mitigate the decline in construction over the last few decades, and to support local regeneration and economic growth, local authorities must acquire these skills.

“Workforce planning has to become a strategic priority for local authorities,” says Paul Tombs, Head of Public Services and Infrastructure for Zurich Municipal.

Zurich Municipal has developed its own risk-based methodology, Talent Book, to aid workforce planning, which is offered to local authority customers. To find out more, email