Retaining Top Talent in the UK Public Sector: Strategies for Success

Alex Stevenson, Public Sector Digital Learning Specialist

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The pressure to retain the best talent in organisations has never been greater. It’s a global phenomenon, and one of the biggest challenges organisations face as we enter 2023.

A recent McKinsey report identifies that many organisations need help with a skills mismatch caused by the accelerated impact of automation, digitisation, and flexible working.

And hiring people with the right skills is no longer an easy option.

McKinsey points out that “the fourth quarter of 2021 was the first period since detailed records began in 2001 when the vacancy rate—an indicator of labour shortages—overtook the unemployment rate—an indicator of labour surpluses.”. This trend has continued throughout 2022.

For UK public sector organisations, the situation is particularly acute. There’s a perfect storm driving talent away to the private sector, driven by several factors.

Public sector pay is an issue

The private sector has responded tactically to the challenges by increasing pay to retain and attract talent. Public sector employees feel they are being left behind, as the latest Office for National Statistics shows:

“Private sector pay grew 6.9% between August and October 2022 while public sector pay grew 2.7%. This was among the most significant differences ever seen between the two.

Small wonder that heads are being turned amongst highly talented public sector individuals whose skills and experience are in big demand by their private sector counterparts.

With pressure on public spending, these levels cannot be matched by public sector bodies. Public sector leaders have their hands tied as they witness a talent drain that will adversely affect national and local government machinations.

Lucy Burton, Employment Editor at the Daily Telegraph, summed this up starkly in a recent article:

“Public sector workers who want better pay will change jobs. There is red hot demand for talent, and ministers cannot afford to budge.”

Low morale is prevalent

Morale is low in the public sector, with reduced resources available and fewer people to do the work. Talks of job cuts, inefficiencies, confusing messages about remote working and a “blame” culture for the government’s recent failures have impacted public sector workers.

Strike action from groups of workers such as nurses and paramedics is taking place, with many workers leaving their chosen professions.

A recent article by Beckie Smith in Civil Service World referring to the Department of Education typifies and captures this mood:

“DfE morale at an all-time low over hybrid working row as staff feel alienated by leadership. Civil servants demand to know how leaders plan to rebuild trust after office return guidance and failure to defend them from political attack.”

Employees are feeling “burnt out”

Employee burnout is a major issue across all sectors.

Existing public sector employees, who must take up the slack when people leave, are under increasing pressure. LinkedIn’s 2022 Employee Well-Being report shows that “burn-out” (measured by stress, overload, pressure, anxiety, and other related signals) has risen by 17% since February 2020 – a record high.

Although this research covers all sectors, we believe “burn-out” is even more of an issue in the public sector.

How L&D can play a part in retaining talent in the public sector?

  1. Provide “growth in the flow of work.”

Whilst there’s no doubt that pay levels are essential, learning and development can positively impact talent retention in the UK public sector.

But to be effective, it needs to focus on creating an individual learning experience that leads to personal growth.

Josh Bersin, famous for the concept of “learning in the flow of work”, argues that the role of L&D is now about providing “growth in the flow of work”.

He believes L&D departments need to move beyond just providing skills and training. It’s about applying those skills and developing capabilities that lead to personal growth and for the organisation’s good.

Growth leads to greater experience, which is reflected in salary levels. And according to McKinsey, it’s experience, not skills, that command higher salaries. That’s the big motivator for employees you want to retain in your organisation.

This is borne out by Deloitte’s 2022 US research which shows that when employees feel their employer is investing in their professional growth and development, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated to stay with the organisation.

They cite Gallup’s 2022 findings that 48% of workers would switch to a new job if offered skills training opportunities.

LinkedIn Learning’s 2022 report supports this. The skills advantage highlighted opportunities to learn and grow as the number one factor in defining an “exceptional working environment.”

  1. Identify key performers who can inspire their peers

By investing in learning and development, organisations can better identify and nurture top talent, helping to retain high-performing employees.

In any organisation, specific individuals will epitomise the values and performance levels in how they go about their work. They set the standards for others and act as inspirational role models for their peers.

They are also likely to be the people whose talent you want to retain in your organisation.

By focusing on these key players and demonstrating the tangible benefits such as promotion, a new role and a higher salary, you send positive messages that it’s entirely possible for everyone to grow and successfully develop their careers in your organisation.

Employees who feel they can advance within their organisation are more likely to stay.

  1. Create a personalised career pathway to success

Employees are on a journey to success. Retaining top talent requires an understanding of where the employee sees their journey’s end. Helping employees with an individual pathway and route plan will make them feel more fulfilled and motivated to stay.

Career pathways have been successfully deployed in the private sector for some time. There are many examples of these. Walmart’s “Career Academy” was set up in 2016. It maps out how anyone can progress from the shop floor to the top of the organisation – if that’s their goal.

Much of the programme is via self-directed learning, where employees shape their education path and control their progress. The prominent top performers act as role models for others, inspiring them to perform to their best.

Since its inception, the programme has delivered more than 10,000 degrees to its associates, promoting thousands of people to better jobs.

These pathway programmes share the ability to deliver life-transforming opportunities to individuals whilst helping organisations fill massive talent gaps.

Providing clear career paths and promoting from within can help employees feel they have a future with the organisation.

  1. Link personal learning and development to organisational needs

Learning and development programs can help employees feel more connected and motivated to contribute to the organisation’s goals.

But they can’t operate in a vacuum.

Linking an individual’s growth programme to the organisation’s needs provides a context that motivates the employee and benefits the organisation.

For example, in 2018, the US Federal Government needed to increase its cybersecurity capability in light of growing attacks from foreign governments.

A decision was made on security grounds to recruit from within and train a new team. From 1500 initial applicants, 25 were selected for intensive training.

All achieved industry standard qualifications within three months and were successfully deployed in the front line to defend the US Government’s digital infrastructure.

  1. Deliver learning in a variety of ways

As human beings, we all have different ways of learning. Understanding how employees learn is vital to successfully delivering any L&D programme.

More learning is now being delivered online, replacing traditional face-to-face classroom-based learning. This opens up opportunities for a more personalised learning and growth programme with greater access and flexibility.

It also reduces the time and costs involved in creating and managing L&D programmes.

L&D teams can create bite-sized learning modules or fully fledged courses and programmes using online tools and resources.

Real-life workplace scenarios and challenges can be recreated and brought to life using virtual reality and interactive animation for employees to overcome as part of their training.

Many of our clients use various tools and delivery platforms to create engaging, relevant learning experiences.

Here are just a few examples.

  • Course content can quickly be created in-house, specifically for individuals or groups of employees, with easy-to-use authoring software such as Articulate 360. This can be delivered in groups on or on a 1:1 basis. It’s also easy to re-create existing classroom content in an online format.
  • Using technology such as Docebo’s Learning Management System (LMS), programmes can be delivered, managed and tracked by L&D teams to ensure optimum results. Employees can also access content via the LMS at any time as part of their self-directed programme.
  • Animated interactive videos can be created in minutes using Vyond’s easy-to-use software.
  • Training and help delivered in the flow of work can be integrated within any software application using in-app support with Digital Adoption Solutions such as Omniplex Guide.


Helping to retain your top talent

We recognise that people leave organisations for many reasons. Salary is a key driver, but there are others. An effective L&D strategy can make a difference.

Omniplex Learning advises many UK public sector organisations on their immediate and longer-term L&D programmes.

We can provide everything you need to create and manage online courses and training in-house – from a single vendor.

Please get in touch if you want to find out how we’ve helped other public sector organisations and how we can help you.  You can email me at [email protected].