Published: 24/03/2005, Volume II5, No. 5947 Page 34

Competition with tourism and retail has driven trusts in the South West to push the recruitment boundaries. Adrian O'Dowd reports on how they are targeting people who want to work in the NHS, but just do not know it yet

Tapping into new pools of potential recruits is a skill that workforce planners in the South West are learning fast.

People who have previously ruled themselves out of a career in the NHS are a new target for workforce developers in the area. The reason is clear - recruitment successes in the past few years mean employers find it increasingly hard to get new recruits in a tight labour market.

'Our biggest challenge in recruitment is in competing with other employers, ' says Peter Milford, director of workforce and learning for the South West Peninsula strategic health authority.

'We are competing with the tourism industry and retail, particularly at healthcare assistant and receptionist level. The employment market means they have more opportunities.' Demystifying preconceptions about the NHS is vital, Peter believes, saying: 'There are people who do not believe they can work for the NHS because It is full of clever professionals. But they can.

'There is a section of the community we do not recruit from because they do not feel able to go for full-time nurse training but they are capable of developing a career in the NHS.' More than half of the area's 1.6 million population live in rural settings and Mr Milford says: 'Our isolated geography means we are always going to struggle unless we look at people's expectations of this area for their training.' The 'perennial problem' of recruiting highly qualified specialist staff has been addressed by designing education programmes in conjunction with local universities for the likes of radiographers, and physical and occupational therapists.

Younger talent is vital as a source of future employees, according to Elaine Stratford, recruitment liaison manager for the SHA, who is behind a strategy launched earlier this month.

The strategy is based on the recommendations of the Engaging the Younger Workforce report published in 2003 by the Strategic Human Resources Intelligence Networks.

The SHA's idea is to offer work experience and exposure across the area in a co-ordinated approach for older teenagers, while also targeting 10- to 11year-olds.

'Young people think it is just doctors and nurses in the NHS. So we do a patient journey game where health professionals go in to speak to children. It shows how we work as a team and demonstrates the wide range of jobs.' Ms Stratford is creating a database of area trust champions - people on file as willing to take part in the school events - made up of all types of healthcare worker.

'A lot of bright people move away to find work and we also have a number of disengaged young people with low aspirations. We want to encourage the bright ones to stay and to offer options to the low aspiration people.'

At Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire SHA, another pool of new recruits is people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The area is one of nine national pilots of the government's Opening Doors scheme, which aims to recruit from them.

The SHA's diversity project has a dedicated outreach worker in Bristol whose job is to go to speak to the black and minority ethnic community and attract them into working in the NHS.

Mariella Dexter, chief executive of the workforce development confederation and SHA director of human resources, says: 'We are operating in a time of fierce competition.' The area has recruited internationally (see View from the Top, right) but employers are learning to be increasingly flexible, she says, as a way of retaining valuable and experienced staff who are considering retirement.

'Some of our patch includes areas with high employment so it becomes very challenging to recruit. I feel very strongly that the NHS offers amazing opportunities and a good career for staff of all backgrounds and abilities.

'There is a career for everyone in the NHS. If we are flexible and supportive of staff developing their careers, there is a lot the NHS can offer them.' The recruitment position is buoyant says John Wolfe, director of human resources and workforce development for Dorset and Somerset SHA. 'There are problems with recruiting to consultant posts but we are tackling this. Around 60 new specialist registrar posts have been commissioned in the past 18 months.' The SHA is also investing in extra training places at local universities for physiotherapy, occupational therapy and radiography. 'Staff who train locally and enjoy positive placement experience during training will take employment locally, at least initially, ' says Mr Wolfe.

The SHA is also supporting employerbased vocational training centres and seconding healthcare assistants with NVQs to undertake higher education programmes.

Cornwall has the added problem of high property prices but public sector workers there do not qualify for the Key Worker Living programme - under which workers can get interest-free loans to help them buy or rent accommodation.

The Royal Cornwall Hospitals trust is aware of the problem and is planning to appeal for an extension to the areas covered by the scheme - London, the South East and east of England.

Caroline Crabtree, communications and careers marketing manager for Hampshire and Isle of Wight SHA, says: 'We are in a tight labour market. We have low vacancies particularly in the north of the county, but we do compete with big businesses for available staff.' The authority is also keen to grow its relationship with schools and colleges. Ms Crabtree adds: 'We are looking at increasing the number of work experience placements by around 20 per cent. We currently offer 1,000 placements a year.' New roles are another way of keeping on top of recruitment and the SHA has developed associate mental health practitioners. 'We found recruiting mental health nurses has been difficult so we created this role. We wanted to tap into those students who have studied psychology or sociology degrees but who did not want to go into nursing as such.'