How do we grow the workforce we need?

“Ok, so, I have called this session: how do we grow the workforce we need,” said Adam Locker from National Highways. “Because I am tired of the public sector saying we have no money, we can’t pay enough, and we’ll never get the people we need.

“We are all here. So how do we find bright people, and encourage professionalism, and grow the workforce we need?”

Participants felt one place to start would be to look outside traditional sources of recruitment. One suggested that customer service departments are a great source of engaged people who want to solve problems, and who can be taught specific skills, like how to code.

A challenge to this is the DDAT – the Digital Data and Technology Professional Capability Framework – which sets out what competencies people should have to be recruited into certain roles. However, this only addresses some aspects of digital work. And the session argued that if it needs to be changed “we need to own it.”

After all, most people in the room had started in one job and moved into another, picking up new skills along the way.  Adam himself said he learned more about data working in a call centre, where he had to record, cut, paste and then print information for a middle-manager, than he did anywhere else.

“It made me despise drudge-work,” he said, adding that he decided to learn how to write the code that would automate the process, instead of accepting the status quo.

Adam argued that finding new people from outside traditional work structures should also be a priority. And that shouldn’t just mean young people. “Should I be looking in prisons?” he asked.

Session participants argued ideas like this should be easier to work on now so much less work has to be tied to physical offices (as long as security can be sorted out). Similarly, there are new opportunities to offer flexible working, part-time working, and education.

Going back to the pay point, Adam said: “Sure, if you want to earn a lot of money, you should go to a bank. But you’ll have to do 90-hours a week in an office in London. There are things we can offer to people who don’t want that.”

Including: a more interesting job. “You like coding, we can do that. You like analysing stuff, we can do that. I don’t think we do a good job of putting across the breadth of what is available. Or the idea that it might take a while for you to find what you like, but it’s going to be out there.”

Underlining his basic point, that the data profession needs to find people with the right attidude first, and worry about teaching them skills second, he told the story of someone who wanted to be a Navy Seal. Navy Seals have to be able to swim. This guy couldn’t. He walked along the bottom of the pool in full kit, and nearly drowned, but got recruited because of his attitude.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to apply this kind of thinking to recruitment days, or job ads, which tend to be full of technical jargon and skills requirements. “I’d love to be able to write ads in plain English,” said one participant. “I’d love to put: come and work with me, it’ll be great, we’ll make a difference. But I know HR won’t let me do it.”

That needs to change. Otherwise, the risk is that the public sector will find that it’s not just hard to get the people it needs, but impossible.