· Features

How to future proof your workforce

There are 1.3 million people working for the health service, making the NHS the largest employer in Europe. With a workforce this size, staff turnover is considerable and so the health service must actively attract new employees to ensure the future workforce has the necessary skills and expertise to continue to provide a quality service for patients.

When addressing the subject of future proofing the NHS there are two distinct strands to consider: young people who are likely to be thinking about career options;  
and people already working in the job market but in different types of industries.  
The two groups are equally necessary to ensure quality service and diversity in the health service.

It is also important to remember the NHS means more than being a doctor or a nurse. It also offers the means to train in specialised professions like engineering and psychology. People can also learn key trades to become, for example, a carpenter or electrician. But when asked for their perceptions of the health service, over half of young people polled (57%), associated it entirely with hospitals and medical professionals. A large number of teenagers surveyed don't associate non-medical jobs such as architect (74%), carpenter (83%) and IT trainer (63%) with the NHS.

The Step into the NHS programme is geared towards young people and aims to introduce them to the breadth of careers available through a range of initiatives, including schools' competitions, a website and ongoing e-communications programmes for registrants. The number of people approaching the age of 16 is proportionately less than ever before, so it's important to engage with them and raise their awareness of the opportunities on offer to them in the future.

Seventy per cent of our workforce for 2020 is already employed in different industries. In the short term, this means that the NHS workforce will come from second jobbers wanting to transfer skills. The NHS as a whole works closely with trade organisations to flag up opportunities to potential workers employed in specialised industries, making them aware that they can easily transfer and build on skills in the health service.  However, in the longer term it will be the next generation of workers - the teens and young people of today - that will be essential for the NHS to maintain its capacity.

Future proofing the NHS workforce is not simply about achieving a high volume of new joiners. The education and career development of existing workers is just as important in increasing the quality of patient care.  Employers and staff are supported in achieving this by the Health Learning and Skills Advice Line. Trained advisers are available to offer free advice and guidance to support those who work in healthcare.  For NHS staff, they can provide help with appraisals and suggest ways to attain the specific competencies outlined in the Knowledge and Skills Framework (KSF).

Through the structure of continual professional development and appraisal, the KSF provides a framework for staff to achieve certain competencies within their role. This is complemented by the Agenda for Change pay system put in place in 2004 for most NHS-employed staff.  Agenda for Change means pay is simpler and more flexible than before, and is directly linked to work rather than job titles. Both HR initiatives demonstrate how the health service has updated its way of working to create an attractive proposition for new workers as well as existing staff. It is crucial to recognise that people will perform better when they feel valued and a big part of what makes working for the NHS special stems from this feeling of being appreciated and having your achievements recognised and rewarded.
The recently launched NHS constitution makes very clear the principles organisations need to uphold to make sure staff are happy in their roles.  All staff should have rewarding and worthwhile jobs, with the freedom and confidence to act in the interest of patients. To do this, they need to be trusted and actively listened to. They must be treated with respect at work, have the tools, training and support to deliver care, and opportunities to develop and progress.
It is necessary to ensure the following conditions for staff:

  • a good working environment with flexible working opportunities, consistent with the needs of patients and with the way that people live their lives
  • fair pay and contract framework
  • involvement and representation in the workplace
  • healthy and safe working conditions and an environment free from harassment, bullying or violence
  • fair treatment free from discrimination
  • the opportunity to raise an internal grievance and, if necessary, seek redress where it is felt that a right has not been upheld

The NHS earns the trust placed in it by insisting on quality and striving to get the basics right every time: safety; confidentiality; professional and managerial integrity; accountability; dependable service; and good communication. To ensure high standards are maintained we have to look to the future. If you only pay attention to what you are delivering today you will inevitably slip up. That is why future proofing the workforce is such an essential HR practice.

Caroline Waterfield is deputy head of employment services, NHS Employers

To help young people understand the diversity of the roles available in the health service, NHS Careers, the careers information service for the NHS in England, has launched a new educational competition. Closing on 31st March 2009, it is part of the Step into the NHS  programme run by NHS Careers . Click here for details.