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Every day, it seems, we hear about staff shortages in public services - schools desperately seeking teachers, opera...
Every day, it seems, we hear about staff shortages in public services - schools desperately seeking teachers, operations cancelled for want of nurses, home care staff leaving in droves to sit at checkouts in Tesco's.

These problems are not unique to the public sector, they are not unprecedented and nor should they be surprising. Surveys of the private sector have recorded recruitment and retention problems at similar levels - hardly surprising when unemployment is at a 25-year low and parts of the country have unemployment rates of less than one percent.

What surprises is not the extent of staff shortage but that this has not triggered greater pressure on pay. Of course, higher pay can draw people into councils or occupations, hence the teachers' recruitment and retention fund and regional allowance for police.

Using enhanced pay as the single golf club can simply create leapfrogging and beggar-my-neighbour situations in which councils do not benefit. The Local Government National Training Organisation's workforce development plan provides a more rounded approach covering, for example, local government as a career, qualifications and training. The guidance on work/life balance shows how council employment can be attractive to potential and existing staff. The Local Government Association's task group on social services has proposed measures from changing public perception to revitalised workforce planning.

In these dog days of summer, the talk is of global recession, of a crash to rival 1929. Believe this, and we might be tempted to let recruitment and retention slip off the agenda. Whatever happens in the short term, the medium term is challenging. A large proportion of council workers are approaching retirement. The cohorts reaching their early 20s in the next few years will be relatively small, sought-after and well-paid. Attracting them will demand close and creative thought.

There is no quick fix. Outsourcing back-office functions to India is unlikely to solve problems for long, and the private sector will be no better placed to recruit and retain than we are. We have no option but to manage and develop our staff better if we are to compete in tight labour markets.

Charles Nolda

Executive director, Employers' Organisation

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