August 2022: Addressing the workforce capacity crisis in local government

This is Naomi’s speech from the LGA annual conference session in July highlighting the issues and her views on what can be done to support workforce capacity in our sector.

Our Head of Workforce, Naomi Cooke, says that despite being an “amazing” sector to work in, local government has a “recruitment crisis and as night follows day, we have a crisis in capacity”.

Photo of Naomi Cooke head of workforce

“As everyone at this conference knows, working in local government is amazing.  It's mind blowingly challenging, life-changingly important and unfathomably varied. What other sector can boast jobs for aardvark wranglers and zip testers alongside 800 other professions?

Yet we have a crisis of recruitment in local government and so, as night follows day, we have a crisis in capacity.

Over half of councils report having insufficient staff to run all services normally.

This isn't a COVID legacy, this has been building for years, the result of funding reductions and growing demands on the sector and a failure to listen to warning sirens that became background noise to too many people.

Now we are at the stage that over half of council leaders say that workforce capacity issues are likely to affect their councils' ability to deliver services in the coming months.

It's easy to say that local government has been hard done by. Partly because it's true.

In response to COVID the civil service and NHS recruited many more staff. Local government didn't.

Overall numbers employed in the sector remained remarkably constant while demands on services escalated exponentially.

Over the last ten years every other part of the public sector has grown more than local government which has, in fact, lost about 40 per cent of its workforce.

We are the lowest paying part of the public sector - I don't suggest we start mentioning that on job ads, but it is true.

This allows our pesky friends in the NHS to make offers to our healthcare experienced staff that they can't refuse. It enables every supermarket across the country to offer less stressful, better paid work than the local council can. And in a tight labour market such as the one we are currently experiencing, that's a major problem.

We do have assets however, that should be promoted.

Pay may not always be competitive but the pension scheme is – cheaper to join than the NHS scheme and better quality than any supermarket can claim. You may not be able to taste the difference but in the long-term employees will see it in their bank balance.

Whether we make enough of that when recruiting is perhaps another question.

Over the last two years in particular councils have shown their unrivalled agility in delivering services differently and in adapting work to a radical new environment. Councils now do more in terms of flexible working and adaptable workplaces than ever before and the benefits of this are shared with swathes of local government employees.

So is it just about pay?

The good news, given there is precious little we can do about that, is no, it’s not just about pay.

The bad news is, it’s more difficult than that, is some areas at least.

To be clear, pay is a major obstacle in many areas, but for professions where the problems are arguably the most acute, pay isn’t the silver bullet even if the powers that be suddenly recognised the desperate need to address that issue.

The worrying truth is that advertising jobs for social workers or environmental health officers on chief exec level salaries would not fill the existing or ‘real’ vacancies in councils with the right people.

If the UK does not have sufficient trained and experienced people in these specialist professions, no amount of market supplements or inducements will solve the capacity problem in those areas.  

All councils report acute problems recruiting suitably qualified and experienced adults and children’s social workers. Successes for some councils in recruiting are often at the expense of others who see retention issues escalate. Agency usage plugs gaps but at a high price, both for the council and for those receiving care.

Other regulatory professions have similar issues, public health, trading standards, engineering, planning, building control, legal, finance, the list literally goes on and on.

So, something needs to be done about supply.

We need to do something about supply.

Working with colleges and across councils some progress can be made, but it does take precious resource that we know many councils simply don’t have.

Apprenticeships are a useful route, not as flexible or suited to local government as they should be but one of the better options available and the workforce team in the LGA has a great track record in helping councils maximise their return on the levy that has to be paid.

The number of councils looking to recruit apprentices is growing but overall the capacity picture is bleak – problems recruiting, burn out of the staff that are in post and budget balancing decisions that are already turning to further reductions in jobs.

In our last workforce survey, 15 per cent of councils said they were already considering having to reduce staffing numbers overall and that was before inflation hit double figures.

We know there isn’t enough spare capacity to weather this storm.

Over half of councils said their workforce capacity, or lack of capacity to be more accurate, to deliver services is a moderate or large concern for the six months ahead.

At a time when capacity is already hitting service delivery, 88 per cent of councils with social care responsibilities say the shortage of social workers is causing acute difficulties in service provision. 

Meanwhile the wider social care sector still has over 100,000 unfilled posts a situation that has been stubbornly consistent since well before COVID.

Conveying to government and the notable range of Whitehall departments involved, that limited workforce capacity in local government means limited delivery of their policy objectives, is an ongoing challenge.

And as if another challenge was needed, in March the Low Pay Commission announced new forecasts for the National Living Wage that are the highest ever seen. Using the upper end of their forecast, which history tells us is where the rate announced usually comes in, we are now looking at an increase of almost 20 per cent in less than 2 years, that’s 19.2 per cent by April 2024.

If all councils did was increase the bottom rates of pay to keep pace with that, we would have over a third of all local government staff on the National Living Wage. Several levels of management all paid the same, bottom rate of pay = an equal pay nightmare.

Staff including almost all non-teaching staff in schools, catering, cleaning, maintenance teams and most front line, public facing employees.

The entry roles in regulatory services, legal and many other posts usually undertaken by graduates would all be within scope of the NLW.

I hardly need to explain how that will impact our recruitment challenges.

But having established the size of the storm coming, we shouldn’t then wallow in that gloom, lay down and wait for the rain.

We know things can be done, and we’re in the business of finding solutions and embracing what works. 

That’s a huge part of this conversation today – sharing experience, looking for ideas and driving strategies. 

Before we hear from the other speakers and indeed delegates in the room, let’s remind ourselves of some of the things we already know that can work.

Firstly, we can promote the positive opportunities local government affords.

We can seek to persuade government that investing in the local government workforce is key to delivering their policy agenda, and we can remind people that local government is a great place to grow your skills and your career. 

We can do more to promote our employment offer and celebrate those who work in local government. 

Secondly, we can promote successful solutions like the LGA’s returner programmes that helped to get qualified social workers, planners and IT specialists back into the sector following career breaks. That programme, and those that ran during the main period of COVID response, showed local government as its best: nimble, responsive and flexible.

Thirdly, growing the apprenticeships offer, reaching out to all members of our communities, offering accessible training and development opportunities on the job, to develop exactly that pipeline of skills of which we are in desperate need.

Others on the panel will no doubt set out their thoughts, and will share how they have been addressing these issues and we all look forward to hearing from you about the ideas that you have been putting into place.

It’s undeniably a challenge, but it’s not as if we haven’t come across challenges before, now is it?

Many thanks for listening.”

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