MY BRILLIANT CAREER - HUMAN RESOURCES: John Sargent has just taken on one of the newest - and potentially crucial - jobs in the country. He talks to Lyn Whitfield about the challenges he faces

Name: John Sargent

Title: chief executive, Greater Manchester workforce development confederation


Salary: health authority senior manager, range one

Describe your job The key task is to try to make some sense of workforce planning. This involves working with lots of people across Greater Manchester and helping them to find the space to think things through strategically. If we get it right, we will end up with the right number of people, with the right education and skills to do the jobs that we need to meet all the service objectives.

What was your career path?

I started in 1972 as a trainee accountant at Lancashire county council. I moved into the health service in 1984 [as deputy treasurer at Wigan health authority]. I moved into general management at Trafford HA in 1991. I think I might have been the last district general manager appointed in the country because that particular job title was quickly abandoned in favour of 'chief executive'. In 1994, I stayed with the 99 per cent of the staff that transferred to Trafford Healthcare trust in the wake of the internal market reforms. I stayed in this post until March of this year - though for the last 18 months I was doing some policy development work for the NHS Executive on the performance assessment framework.

What skills and attributes do you bring to the job?

An insight into education and training is very important. I became involved in education and training at Trafford, as we hosted a school of nursing and midwifery and an education and training consortium. I also have a commitment to developing people. All too often, I feel the NHS lets people go who still have much to offer, if it could recognise that potential and invest in it. The confederation is a network organisation:

you have to build trust and influence people.

How big a job are you facing?

We are not too pessimistic - but there will have to be a great programme of change. For example, trusts get only a few applications for D grade nursing posts, but often between 30 and 60 for nursing assistant posts. There is a great untapped potential. But it means looking at things differently, challenging existing skill mixes and asking people to mentor others in new ways.

What was your career high point?

Because I always wanted to be a general manager, getting the job at Trafford was great. I think I got it the day before my 40th birthday, so it was a marvellous birthday present. The thing I got most satisfaction from over the years was working with colleagues to develop Trafford General Hospital, which was very run down.

And the low point?

Two spring to mind. First, I was at Trafford for 10 years and I had three chairs - adapting to new people who are thrust upon you can sometimes be difficult. Second, we had difficulty at Trafford extricating ourselves from an accelerated programme of capital development that we embarked on at the request of the then regional chair. We found ourselves doing the business case and the procurement in parallel, but the plug was pulled after the chair retired and we were told to go back to doing things sequentially. People were disappointed that things had been set back some years, just like that.

What else might you have done?

If this is a question of something completely different, I would have loved to be a ski guide.

Guiding people around the mountains in the sunshine day after day. . . that must be heaven.

And what else do you do to relax?

I do not know about 'to relax', but to keep the weight down I go out on my bike and do about 120 miles a week. I also play five-a-side football.

Do you have any remaining ambitions?

I want to make a success of my new job, then I will take stock and look around for one last challenge before retirement. I am fitter than many people my age and I still have loads and loads of enthusiasm.

But it is hard to predict what the right challenge might be when things are changing so fast.

Do you have any career advice?

It is not as easy now as when I started. Then, every two or three years there was another rung on the ladder, as long as you didn't blot your copy book. Now, organisations have flatter structures: that means a big jump up from one job to another. I suspect managers need to acquire more experience on each step and do a range of different things. Also, I do not think managers who are ambitious can afford to be too rigid when it comes to looking for that next job. And make sure you are clear about your own personal values and stay true to them in the job you are doing - do the right thing.

Just the job

Title: chief executive, workforce development confederation Salary:£50,000-£90,000 Numbers: 24 What are they leading? The decision to set up workforce development confederations was taken after consultation on the workforce planning review, A Service of All the Talents, closed in June last year. The new organisations went live in April.

Distinguishing features: The chief executives have a varied background; some have come through 'traditional' human resources routes.

A number, like John Sargent, formerly led other NHS organisations.

Prospects: Previous bodies set up to bring order to workforce planning and training have not been judged a success, so workforce planning and development corporations have everything to play for. Plus, of course, there will be enormous gains for the NHS if they can deliver.