Health Education England is to take a lead in managing the national supply of the NHS workforce, starting with a major campaign to tackle a crisis in nursing numbers, HSJ has been told.

In a significant departure from its statutory role, the £5bn education and training provider is gearing up to become a “system leader” to help individual trusts fill staffing gaps.

The organisation is planning a multimillion-pound series of measures including new training courses, eventually to be targeted at all levels of the NHS workforce, as well as recruitment campaigns targeted at the hardest to fill posts.

No national body currently oversees workforce supply and demand. Under the 2012 Health Act HEE is responsible for the future supply of NHS staff, leaving responsibility to meet current need with individual trusts.

But Jo Lenaghan, HEE director of strategy and workforce planning, told HSJ trusts could not solve national problems individually so for the organisation to take on a lead role was “the right thing to do”.

In a letter to health secretary Jeremy Hunt, HEE chief executive Ian Cumming said “bespoke education and training packages” would be offered to staff. He also said the body was “keen to move to a model by [which] we don’t just commission university courses, but manage our investments in people… so that valuable skills and experience are not lost to the system, causing waste to the taxpayer and the individual nurse”.

Mr Cumming signalled the Department of Health, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission and Monitor all backed its approach. The organisations will participate alongside provider bodies in a workforce pressures steering group, due to produce its first recommendations by March, led by HEE’s director of nursing Lisa Bayliss-Pratt.

The group will use data from sources such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council to target nurses whose registration has lapsed to try and persuade them back. It will also aim to alert individual nurses to vacancies at specific trusts.

Following the Francis report trusts have reversed plans to reduce nursing numbers and plan to recruit to an additional 3,700 posts in 2013-14. With a nurse shortage widely reported, hundreds of overseas nurses have been recruited in the past year and 41 trusts have told HSJ they plan to recruit foreign nurses in the coming year.

Ms Lenaghan accepted HEE’s new role was a strategic risk but said: “Trusts are under pressure to employ adequate numbers of staff to provide safe patient care. At the end of the day that risk trumps all others.

“We want to be a system leader to help and support employers to meet their requirements to match current demand and supply. We want to manage the investment taxpayers have already made so that nurses have good careers and feel valued rather than just commissioning more and more nurses at a time when the attrition rate at some universities is as high as 30 per cent.”

She added: “We are concerned the nurses we commission won’t actually be produced until 2017. Individual trusts need support to make changes now and no one employer by themselves can tackle the system wide issues.”

HEE plans to publish its main workforce commissioning plans for 2014 next month.