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If you think you’re in a ‘battle’ for talent, you’re fighting the last war

‘COVID showed what your employer really thought of you’, is a statement that captures the undercurrents of employee experience during the pandemic.

The early rush to remote working was quickly accompanied by managers questioning employee productivity, the loss of workplace culture (oddly enough through the loss of ‘water cooler’ conversation that the same manager would likely have seen as unproductive in the workplace), the negative impact of coffee purchases on the national economy and discussions about remote monitoring and surveillance technologies.

The focus was on getting back to ‘normal’. The undertone was a lack of trust in a workforce that was not being directly supervised.

The ‘great resignation’ neatly captures the employee experience. The phrase, originating in the United States, refers specifically to a trend, beginning in early 2021, where employees voluntarily resigned from their jobs in large numbers. The trend has also been reported in Europe and the United Kingdom but to a lesser extent than seen in the US.

In response to labour shortages, mostly in areas that were in demand, there are reports of businesses offering ‘golden welcomes’, where employers offer potential employees a cash payment to attend an interview, an additional larger sum for a second interview and a third payment for completing probation, if selected.

Resignation is likely the wrong measure of this trend. Former treasurer John Frydenberg referred to a ‘great reshuffle’ rather than a ‘great resignation’, reporting that over one million workers started new jobs in the three months before November 2021 – an increase of almost 10% before the pre-pandemic average.

Additionally, in the three months before February 2022, a record number of workers reported resigning for better job opportunities. This speaks to increased workforce mobility.

The important questions are: ‘what’s driving this?’ and ‘what are the implications for Australia’s public service?’

These trends have exposed the flaws in traditional workforce planning, with linear projections accompanied by a gap analysis and speculation of future skills requirements. The projections are usually wrong but are rarely revisited as part of an integrated planning process.

The stock and flow of a workforce is a narrow and limited measure. The drivers of workforce capacity are behavioural.

The ‘great resignation’ or the ‘great reshuffle’ has seen employees reset the balance between work and life, have an increased awareness of new possibilities and are motivated to pursue those opportunities. It’s also a reflection of employer behaviours that showed limited trust and a tin ear for hearing the employee voice during the pandemic and an unwillingness to accept toxic workplace climates.

These shifts in mindset and behaviour aren’t captured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics but are apparent to all employers struggling to secure critical skills and experience.

The public service will likely experience increased resignations and higher levels of internal mobility. Employees have embraced hybrid working, and departments and agencies have had to walk a fine line in reconciling employee and government expectations.

The extent to which an employer supports hybrid working is a core part of decision-making for potential employees. Additionally, in critical occupations, the ability to offer remote working and support better work-life balance is like remuneration – part of the ‘price of entry’ if employers want to be competitive in the labour market.

Unfortunately, many employers, including the APS, see themselves fighting the ‘war for talent’ described in the 1990s. The battle is between employers, and the weapons are variations on a meticulously crafted employment offer. Employees acquired are the spoils of war.

This is the last war. Stop fighting it.

Wanted: accuracy, speed and surprise

The pandemic continues to reshape people’s perceptions of work fundamentally and opens new possibilities for employers to redesign work and organisations. Employees are not passive prizes in this new world but active participants in reshaping the work through their decisions. Put simply, employers who can’t adapt won’t get the talent they need.

If there is a ‘battle’ for talent today, it is for the hearts and minds of employees. There’s an opportunity for the APS to craft a compelling proposition to attract and retain talent in an environment where employees are looking for a difference.

However, it will need to be backed by progressive leadership and management, openness to change and adaptability in structuring and organising work. 

A hearts-and-minds approach suggests a different approach to the labour market. The APS is well known for adhering to highly structured job advertisements, with traditional placements and limited brand support. It is an industrial approach to the labour market based on the assumption that the APS is a well-known employer.

Approaching the labour market today requires a more agile approach based on accuracy, speed and surprise. It’s informed by an approach to workforce planning that’s equally agile and driven by a clear understanding of skills requirements, a detailed knowledge of labour market trends and a scenario approach to workforce motivation and behaviour.

This is supported by a mobile approach that works across industry sectors. For example, if the skills (or even like-skills) are in the finance, agriculture or construction sector, then the pursuit of APS talent can work comfortably within those sectors. The approach to acquiring talent is highly targeted and based on a detailed understanding of the micro-trends within industries and occupations.

The methods for raising awareness and attracting attention to the possibility of an APS career are unconventional. The focus will be on low cost, high-impact strategies. The emphasis is on providing a persuasive, smart, memorable and, wherever possible, interactive experience. The focus is on engaging the attention of potential employees. The effect is to surprise and delight.

This is an intensive, focused and nuanced approach to accessing talent. It requires deliberate strategy and continuous attention from APS leaders and HR practitioners. There are no practical barriers to APS departments and agencies taking a more sophisticated approach to secure the talent they need for the future.

Building and retaining the public sector workforce

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