The public sector skills shortage: is enough being done to bridge the gap?

While the digital skills gap spans every industry, the public sector faces its own unique challenges when it comes to hiring and retaining talent. We speak with Ash Gawthorp, chief academy officer at consultancy Ten10 Group about those hurdles, whether the UK Government is doing enough to bridge the gap and how its own Academy is looking to equip people to enter the public sector.

Posted 31 July 2023 by Christine Horton

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing the public sector when it comes to recruitment?

In terms of recruitment, the private sector is faced with a lot of the same challenges as the public sector: high vacancies and a shortage of talent. But at the same time faces a set of very unique challenges that the private sector doesn’t have.

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One of the most pressing issues that the public sector faces is that it is competing for talent with the private sector, which in the majority of cases is a losing battle. One of the reasons for this is down to the salaries that each sector can offer tech workers. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published in December 2022 for instance found that between January 2020 and October 2022, private sector salaries had increased by 6.9 percent, whereas public sector salaries had increased by just 2.7 percent. This inability to compete with the private sector from a salary point of view is just one of the additional complications the public sector faces when it comes to recruitment.

Another of the unique challenges faced by the public sector is the sheer difficulty of actually getting clearance to work in the sector. Public sector organisations often require new recruits to meet a number of additional requirements before they can actually start a role. The interview process is often far more rigorous, and from experience, good talent can often drop out of the process, as a result of an offer been made by a more agile organisation. Additionally, public sector roles can mandate certain qualifications or require lengthy application processs documentation to be completed, and people can be filtered out of a role for not filling out the right form correctly.

Security clearance once you’ve landed the role can also be tricky. I’ve heard of people who have landed a role and who have been expected to work immediately. However, it has then taken nine months before they have been given security clearance to begin the role. Bureaucracy like this just makes it harder for public sector organisations to fill their vacancies.

And lastly, I think that retention is a big issue for the public sector – partly as a result of the challenges that we previously outlined, salary competition and bureaucracy. Between March 2021 and March 2022, public sector employee turnover in the UK hit 13.6 percent, which was the highest staff turnover rate in a decade.

How can those organisations start to address those challenges?

I think one of the big areas for improvement for the public sector would be to improve the support that people receive once they are placed in a role. All too often, we see that candidates are placed in a role because they have a certain level of qualification but are then left to fend for themselves, without any further learning and development. In a study conducted by Workplace Intelligence at the end of last year, two-thirds of the 3,000 respondents said that they are likely to leave their current employer due to a lack of opportunity for skills development and career advancement.

Offering further learning and development and a strong support would not only help to boost retention rates within the public sector, but it could also be used as a selling point to compete with the private sector. Public sector salary levels are very fixed, and as we are all well aware from the myriad of news stories over the last few months, pay rises in the public sector are hard to come by. What the public sector can offer is a clear and stable career path with the ability to move into different adjacent roles, but the sector needs to do better at selling this – starting with that early career support and development.

Do you think the Government is doing enough to overcome the problem?

There is definitely more that the Government could be doing to overcome the digital skills gap in this country. Thus far the Government’s effort to fix the digital skills gap have largely centred around getting those who may already have digital skills back into work.

We recently saw Jeremy Hunt’s push to get over-50s back into the workplace through ‘returnship’ programmes, aimed at upskilling and reskilling older workers to re-join the workforce. But programmes such as this aren’t a one-and-done solution. After 40 years of work, some have said they will only return if it is very much on their terms. Hybrid and flexible work will play a massive role in the decision to return. In a post-pandemic world, people want flexibility and the chance to schedule work around their life, not the other way around. And with family and caring commitments often a key aspect of their life, this is essential. It is going to take a lot to get those out of work back in without the promise of worthwhile rewards, something that I fear the UK Government may not be able to live up to. We are yet to see the effect of initiatives like this but without the correct support in place, it is unlikely this will be the solution to the digital skills gap.

Apprenticeships are another area that the government advocate to get young people into the technology industry, but these too have their pitfalls. Apprenticeships have often been the alternative for those who didn’t either want to, or have access to, go to university. But their efficacy is waning with only 53.4 percent of all apprenticeships being completed in 2021/22. When carrying out research to determine the main reasons for apprentices not completing their qualifications, The Department of Education found that 41 percent of students said their main reason for leaving with that their course was badly run. Again, the digital skills gap magical solution won’t be found in apprenticeships.

The government needs to make a concerted effort to promote and advertise non-traditional yet highly effective methods of training. These either don’t incur or incur minimal costs for those partaking in the training and they teach real-world transferable skills that will make a noticeable difference in bridging the gap. The Government also need to realise that getting people into the tech industry is only half the problem; it’s keeping them there that’s the real challenge. As well as alternative methods, there needs to be strong support systems in place post initial training to help bridge the gap which is critical to developing the skilled technologists of the future. University, returnships and apprenticeships, although all with the right intentions, aren’t going to be what close the gap and lead the UK on the path to being a tech superpower without thinking through these things carefully.

What is the Ten10 Academy, and how does it helps clients?

The Academy essentially aims to equip, train and support individuals, from any background, education, or age, to work in the tech sector and become brilliant technologists. They’re trained across a diverse portfolio of skills and can also choose to specialise in certain areas too. We’re in a digital skills crisis that has been bubbling below the surface for years and is absolutely at boiling point – the Academy runs a ‘recruit-train-deploy’ model so businesses can come to us to fill the gaps for their projects. After our Academy consultants have spent their first two years on assignments with us, that business can then choose to permanently employ them and add them to their team.

We want to make sure we’re as inclusive as possible: we don’t mandate any formal qualifications for people who apply to our Academy we believe “talent is everywhere opportunity is not”, we have our own tests to determine aptitude for tech without having any tech experience, and consultants are paid whilst they’re training and working on assignments. For our customers, we also want to make sure that whoever we place with them will be a perfect fit. That means we don’t want to just suggest anyone, we take our time to understand what the project or role the consultant will be working with, and ensure the consultant doesn’t just have the right technical skillset, but also that their personality and values are aligned to the culture of the teams they’ll be working in.

Ash Gawthorp

This is especially important I think, when we’re looking at the public sector. We have people who come to our Academy who we train that have very different priorities and aspirations, some are keen to find the path that will make them the most money as quickly as possible – which is perfectly fine. In the public sector, people generally gravitate there because they may want to make more of a difference, or it’s someone seeking a more well-defined career advancement plan who is happy to take a slower approach. The public sector generally allows you to have more options and mobility, so we want to place someone who is more open to that.