Making the right choices

As announced in the government’s recent Budget, public expenditure cuts are inevitable. However, with up to £20 billion of savings to be made by 2014, the National Health Service (NHS) is possibly under more strain than any other government sector.
    
The temptation will be to make short-term cuts through the supply chain and to drive down recruitment costs. The reality is that the debate will need to focus on the broader resourcing agenda and on more deep-rooted reform of how services are delivered.

High demand
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s (REC) latest Report on Jobs shows that demand for staff in the healthcare sector remains high. At the same time, the recent NHS Staff Survey from the Care Quality Commission underlined major resourcing challenges, with 45 per cent of those healthcare professionals surveyed believing that there were not enough staff for them to do their jobs properly.
    
NHS workers are clearly concerned over current staffing levels. This underlines the need for any recruitment freezes in health services to be properly thought through. Unmanageable workloads create a downward spiral of increased stress and absence rates, which only serves to add to the resourcing challenge.
    
NHS trusts will need to review staffing levels and resourcing mechanisms. One of the aims of the REC’s current public sector resourcing campaign is to highlight the benefits of flexible staffing arrangements within this context. However, a key challenge that currently needs to be overcome is the perception that one of the main sources of this kind of flexibility – namely agency workers – is one of the primary areas that needs to be cut.

Agency workers
Agency work is a vital component of any large organisation’s resourcing strategy and must be seen as part of the solution for cost-effective workforce management within the NHS, rather than as part of the problem.
    
The ability to call on extra resource from agency and locum staff to fill gaps where necessary is crucial to front line delivery of services. The contribution of agency workers is recognised across most sectors of the UK economy, but discussions within the healthcare sector too often depict agency work as an unnecessary drain on resources. Priority must be given to unpicking pre-conceptions over the perceived cost of using agencies.
    
As the recent Common Health Select Committee’s report on the use of overseas doctors in providing out-of-hours services highlighted, there is an ongoing need to ensure that the right recruitment checks and selection procedures are in place at a trust level. As the overall recruitment process is often complex and time-consuming, when weighing up the benefits of using intermediaries such as specialised healthcare recruitment agencies in comparison to internal recruitment services, it is necessary to factor in the resource required to advertise vacancies, sift through applications, undertake the right checks, take up references and assess each candidate’s suitability. Specialist healthcare recruitment agencies can make the whole recruitment process far more streamlined and efficient for an organisation.

Resourcing models
If a recruitment agency is not used for the sourcing of flexible staff, it will be necessary for this activity to be taken on internally. Part of the REC’s current campaign is to compare different resourcing models so that the relative merits of different options can be evaluated. For example, it is often argued that an in-house bank of temporary staff is more cost-effective than using private agencies. However, a number of public bodies who have thoroughly compared like with like and objectively evaluated performance have come to a different conclusion.
    
There are real benefits to using intermediaries and as such, it is no wonder that research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development showed that 78 per cent of employers use agencies to manage the recruitment process. However, the recent NHS Staff Survey also showed that only 44 per cent of staff felt that their trust was committed to helping its staff balance their work and home life. As such, it is important to bear in mind that as well as benefiting employers, flexible working arrangements are also of benefit to individual workers in the NHS. Many choose to work through agencies so that they have the opportunity to pick and choose their own hours.
    
Workforce optimisation and flexible working practices have a central role to play in helping the health service cut its expenditure by £20 billion. We must avoid knee-jerk job cuts that could cost more in the long-term and we must challenge easy pre-conceptions. Where managed well, agency staff contribute to the efficient and effective delivery of public services.

About the REC
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) is the representative body for the UK’s £22.5 billion private recruitment and staffing industry. With over 3,500 members, the REC is the voice of the recruitment industry. All members must abide by a Code of Professional Practice. Visit www.rec.uk.com

About the author
Tom’s role within the REC focuses in taking forward the views of the recruitment industry to key government and EU officials. He also responsible for promoting professional standards initiatives such as the Diversity Pledge. Before joining the REC, Tom worked for the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), for the London-based recruitment consultancy MBA Training Research & Development, the European Commission and the French multi-national Vivendi. Tom has a Masters degree in International and European Law from Assas University in Paris and a BA Law Degree from Sussex University.

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