· 4 min read · Features

The key challenges facing public sector recruitment


The public sector (PS) recruitment marketplace, much like every other sector, is in a state of massive flux in the current climate. Despite many reports suggesting it is the 'safe haven' for jobseekers, the public and not-for-profit sectors are experiencing their own issues during the economic down turn.

The Key Challenges

Quantity Vs. Quality

Levels of confidence have surged from the client perspective, as they see the popularity of working within the public sector has risen dramatically. Many public sector employers believe the pool of potential talent is growing and is there for the taking. The influx of candidates from the private sector is on the increase, but beneath the surface, this opportunity potentially raises as many problems as it does solutions.

A note of caution - while the quantity of candidates may be growing, their quality and relevance for the public sector may not always be.  

Many public sector staff are staying firmly put and movement within the sector is minimal. Many are unsurprisingly risk averse currently and we are working very hard to ensure they are only approached with particularly good opportunities.

We are discovering several key changes - firstly, many employers are simply not asking the right questions about the quality of candidates. Our role requires us to search harder to find the quality candidates who are prepared to put themselves at risk and make a change. For this reason, we have also seen advertising, one of the normal routes to communicate positions, may attract the volume but not the right people.

In Morgan Law's recent survey - 80% of public sector employers claim to have successfully employed candidates from the private sector, but only 3% said that they would actively prefer private sector candidates. And 75% claimed they would actively prefer to interview those with public sector experience.

Budgets and Money Saving

To some degree, the renewed attractions of working in the public sector have brought with it some major headaches for employers. The level of administration to cater for the growing volume has trebled and while budgets are being sliced thinly, employers are looking for new, flexible ways to save money.

Many public sector employers are being inundated by private sector recruitment companies now touting for new PS business, as they watch the commercial marketplace dwindle. A competitive environment is undoubtedly a good thing, however, the understanding needed to recruit for the public sector is a world apart from private sector needs. More interestingly, a price war is breaking out across some areas of recruitment lead by former commercial agencies with little or no experience in the not-for-profit and public sectors - while they may offer a cheaper price, many would question their ability to deliver quality.  

The short-termist, almost guerrilla tactics applied by some commercial recruitment agencies, particularly in the HR sector,  are clearly surprising some PS employers - we've heard stories about candidates being offered cash and other personal incentives, browbeating and door-stepping tactics are becoming apparent - all practices which are previously unheard of in this sector.

This opportunist ‘quick buck' approach is unlikely to be sustainable and will no doubt disappear as fast as it has emerged as the economy begins to recover.   It is completely against what the public sector stands for - things such as loyalty, values, commitment etc. The current situation needs to be tempered with a longer term view - we don't want clients to be left with a decimated workforce in the coming years.

Morgan Law has found that budgetary constraints are also leading clients to seek out inventive routes to reduce their costs - a new type of contract is appearing - rather than hiring people on a temporary or interim basis, some clients are looking at short term contracts of one or two years - a semi-permanent approach.  This is all well and good, however the pitfall here is that fewer experienced candidates will be attracted to less committed employers in the current climate.

Morgan Law's own recent survey claimed that 90% of PS employers would consider private sector candidates for temp or interim positions.   Morgan inserts a note of caution on using interim staff as a ‘quick fix' - employers need to assess whether the goal is weathering the storm or preparing for a new dawn.

Transition from Private to Public Sectors

Currently we are seeing a toe dipping exercise from PS clients who are increasingly prepared to consider private sector candidates. There are many positives to be taken from the private to the public sectors and there are many roles which suit the skill base.   

The main issue is one of transition - adapting to the change from one diverse culture to another. The risk to PS employers is if candidates did or could not adapt to the environment, resulting in an increase in staff turnover thus offering little benefit to the public sector.   

A few of the most difficult elements of transition include:
o    A move away from being profit driven - the focus shifts to one of service maximisation and cost savings, not profit maximisation. More services for less money, not fewer services for greater profits.
o    Political awareness - understanding the political context and the fact that ‘all publicity is not always good publicity' when working in the public eye.
o    Stakeholder engagement - less autonomy and the requirement for more consultation to a larger customer base is the challenge that commercial candidates encounter most frequently.

I think some private candidates can make the leap, depending upon the role to be filled. Areas such as communications and media,  procurement and supply, are more likely to suit commercially minded candidates. But sectors such as Finance and HR can prove less successful partly because of the politically sensitive nature of the roles.

Our research reveals 20% said their previous experiences employing those from the private sector had been unsuccessful. But 50% believed that their organisation might benefit from the skills and other experiences brought in by commercially aware employees.

The public sector workforce has strategic needs to ensure succession planning for its ageing workforce in the longer term.   One example is the new Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) audit process, which has a renewed focus on developing staff in local government to ensure its future workforce is in place, well resourced and able to deliver.  It could be that commercial candidates are a viable option if the transition can be managed closely.

David Morgan, partner at public sector and thrid sector recruitment firm Morgan Law