The need to trawl worldwide for newly qualified staff may be gone for the NHS but ensuring the right people find the right jobs remains a challenge, reports Stuart Shepherd

Not so long ago it seemed the only way to feed the ravenous appetite of the NHS for newly qualified professionals was through an exhaustive and unrelenting worldwide recruitment drive.

NHS Employers deputy director Sian Thomas says: ‘The policy to reverse that, and the time, money and effort that supported it, has been fantastically successful and great news for patients. Estimates for the annual number of staff needed are being met and we now grow our own sustainable workforce from a steady supply of graduate and diploma students.

'It won’t stay successful though if those same students have difficulties finding work or if their junior colleagues start leaving their training courses because they see no prospect of future employment.’

That is the challenge - the paradigm shift - now facing healthcare as an industry at both strategic and local levels, and something NHS Employers has already started joint work on with the Department of Health, trade unions and public, voluntary and independent sector employers.

The NHS Employers February 2007 summit brought all these groups together to agree a number of shared actions and solutions to help newly qualified professionals find their way into jobs. Better local links between health service provision and workforce planning, feasibility schemes to look at maximising or guaranteeing employment opportunities, and the creation of NHS Jobs regional talent pools for professionals looking for work, were just some of the commitments to come out of the meeting.

This in turn builds on an NHS Employers ‘Maximising Employment Opportunites’ framework briefing from 2006, which recognises the vulnerable position that many newly qualified staff find themselves in and puts forward a number of innovative workforce change strategies and case studies.

‘Unlike other degree programmes, where students bear much of the cost, nurses in training are part of a bursary scheme underwritten by the UK taxpayer, says Sian. 'There is therefore much more of a need for the wider health industry to take them in once they are qualified.’

The NHS still needs 16,000 new nurses from higher education every year – or more, as Wanless now appears to suggest. Making places available or being able to share opportunities for work, before they are lost to other sectors in the war for talent, calls for some of the creative thinking from employers that the NHS Employers framework addresses. The greater competition for jobs also requires students to be more flexible in how and where they gain experience.

‘Our data collection work with trusts and other employers around the country shows huge variations, even from one town to the next,’ says Sian. ‘However, while there may be pockets of the country where newly qualified nurses find it hard to get the jobs they want straight away, they will eventually get work.’

‘The group we are worried about now though – and this was equally true five years ago – are physiotherapists,’ says Sian. ‘We have 2,000 new qualified physios arriving in the labour market every year and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists calculates that something like half of the 2006 cohort have still to find work.’

NHS Employers is a keen advocate of the role that physios can play in delivering a patient-led NHS and in meeting a number of key targets – such as the 18-week programme. Musculoskeletal problems are one of the biggest risks to achieving the target and the number of GP referrals to back pain specialists is huge. Physios have been making valuable contributions to a number of self-referral pilot schemes that could well tackle this bottleneck. Their cost effectiveness was clearly identified across 29 centres in Scotland by NHS Forth Valley’s HSJ Improving Patient Access award winning entry of 2006.

Briefings for boards on how physios and other allied healthcare professionals can help them meet their organisational goals are now being produced by NHS Employers.

‘I still come across very senior people in the NHS who have no idea that we have an oversupply of physios and speech and language therapists,’ says Sian. ‘And yet people leading service provision tell me waiting times for these services are unacceptable. There needs to be a redesign of the way the system works so that these people can have jobs and patients can access their skills.’

The NHS Employers annual conference and exhibition will take place at the ICC, Birmingham, on 9-11 October.