Features: July 11th, 2008

By Nicola Linkleter, Executive Director, Badenoch & Clark

The negative image of the public sector can act as a deterrent in attracting talented people. It is perceived as an industry that is “down-sizing”. Career prospects are viewed as slow burning to stagnant. The author believes that doing nothing to counter this negative image is a lost opportunity. She argues that there are many features of public sector employment which can be woven into a positive image to attract the best people.

The public sector is at a crossroads. Modern social needs mean that people expect more from public services. Urban development and the complexity it breeds mean that the public sector has to reach out to more sections of the community. Added to all of this is the growth of a consumer led society where Joe Public is far more vocal about what is needed than ever before.

It’s in this environment that the government has a dilemma. Against these rising expectations of public services is the sector’s clear commitment to streamlining the huge variety of services it offers. That doesn’t mean cutting back on the level of services or lowering the commitment to a particular area. It means cutting back in terms of staffing or resources in order to create a more efficient service. It means addressing the high amount of bureaucracy and levels of decision making that have previously characterised many areas of the sector in previous years.

One of the unintended consequences of this though has been that public sector organisations are facing a dilemma in attracting the right kind of staff. The perception of an industry that is “down-sizing” means the best people will often turn away. Add salary packages that consistently make the wrong kinds of headlines, and the scale of the recruitment challenge facing the public sector begins to be seen.

Tackling stereotypes

But it’s not just low pay that frightens many people away from working in the public sector. There’s a common stereotype of the kind of role the public sector offers. The perception is that the career prospects for those working in the public sector are slow burning at best and positively stagnant at worst. People will often see a career path in place for employees, but view it very much in the long term, leaving little space for development as a result of using initiative or enterprise.

Key recruitment drives by the government have helped to tackle this image. Sectors like the army and police have had publicity of the variety of roles they have available, increasing awareness of their modern approach to employment. However, the 2008 budget saw much of the credibility built up by these campaigns dismantled, as public sector salary increases were capped for the foreseeable future in order to allow maximum investment in the services themselves.

Money, of course, is not everything. Public sector organisations are driven by their people more so than many private sector companies. Their agendas are set by people that have a particular interest in improving the quality of life of a certain section of the community. However, despite this being a major driver when deciding to work in this sector, the level of financial motivation and other benefits should not be underestimated.

So whilst salaries themselves cannot always be raised in order to attract the best people into the sector, the type of award that’s offered can be looked at as a key tool of attraction. The need for this to be cash based becomes less as the acknowledgement of value through benefits is more accepted by the workforce.

Non-cash benefits is this enough?

Organisations in the public sector are renowned for offering a wide range of non-monetary benefits. Although some believe that this is to make up for paltry salary expectations, to others these benefits can be equally as important. For example many people with childcare commitments appreciate a level of flexibility in the hours they can work. Others may appreciate the recreational benefits offered by employers such as personal car leasing, concessions on family days out, or money off holidays with specific providers.

However a considerable investment is needed in order to offer these sorts of benefits as a standard part of an employment package. For most organisations, spending money on this sort of thing simply isn’t realistic. So instead of attracting people through hard benefits, it can be important to sell the softer benefits.

Let candidates experience the culture of your organisation. Introduce them to your leadership team. Explain your key goals and your plan to meet those goals in the coming years. This is all about selling yourself as an employer and an organisation. If a talented candidate feels they are going into an organisation that surrounds them with talented individuals, strong teams and a clear set of goals, which can go a long way to overshadowing another employer that’s perhaps offering a better benefit package.

Perhaps the key “soft” benefit the public sector can offer in today’s economic climate is job security. There are daily headlines of new job losses in the private sector as the credit crunch continues to linger, but the public sector is insulated against this to an extent. The services that the sector provides will always be needed and so public sector workers are much less susceptible to the shadow of redundancy.

Making a difference

Of course, the key selling point of the services offered by the organisations in this sector is the impact of what they do on society at large. Instead of profit being the primary motivator for productivity, it is developing knowledge of how to tackle a social or cultural issue that takes priority in the public sector. Meeting the needs of service users and communities therefore becomes a priority.

This is a selling point that too few organisations are capitalising on. There are a lot of talented individuals in the employment market that demonstrate a particular social awareness. Put simply they want to make a difference.

We’ve seen a lot of people put this desire above the need to hunt out a big pay packet or the employer offering the biggest company car allowance. It’s in that environment that public sector employers need to demonstrate throughout their recruitment process the nature of the organisation and the impact it has. This means more than a few carefully chosen words in your job advert. It means connecting with candidates at the interview stage. It means really demonstrating the achievements of the organisation. It means showing specific examples of where the candidate can help.

Moving forward

It is clear that the public sector is unlikely to be able to compete with the private sector on salary alone. The nature of the private sector means that they are able to offer higher salaries and more impressive benefit packages.

But, that doesn’t mean the private sector should always attract the best people. Time and again, we’ve seen public sector organisations able to attract the crème of the workforce through well communicated and thought out recruitment campaigns. The key is in ensuring candidates realise that employers cannot be compared on pay and benefits alone.

The public sector occupies a unique position in the employment market; a position that too many organisations are failing to use when recruiting.

Nicola Linkleter is Executive Director at international recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark.