Published: 18/08/2005, Volume II5, No. 5969 Page 28

A recent survey found finance professionals pointedly uninterested in an NHS career. So how can the health service increase its pulling power, asks Alexis Nolan

Commercial finance professionals have given the thumbs down to a career in the NHS in a league table of preferred sectors to work in, produced by Hays Accountancy and Finance.

In a survey of more than 300 finance professionals across the public and private sectors, 21 per cent of commercial accountants name public healthcare as the sector in which they would least like to work. Respondents said they associated a job in the NHS with bureaucracy, too much politics and a lack of career opportunities. Only local government was less popular, named by 22 per cent.

This comes at a time when foundation trust regulator Monitor is warning that hospitals are struggling to come to terms with the tough new financial disciplines needed for foundation status. Monitor's recent report said a number of the hospitals applying to become foundation trusts as 'lacking the financial viability to function on the required, more business-like model'.

And last month's Healthcare Commission star-ratings showed that one in four acute trusts and primary care trusts failed to meet their financial targets last year.

'It is clear that specialist financial expertise is becoming increasingly pivotal to the realisation of the government's modernisation agenda within the NHS, ' says Hays national director of public services Andy Robling. 'With the current skills shortages in accountancy and finance, organisations must act to ensure would-be recruits are not ruling out healthcare roles based on misconceptions.' Respondents who favoured working in the healthcare sector highlighted a challenging work environment, job security, good benefits and the opportunity to drive change as key attractions. Half the private sector candidates surveyed said they would be tempted to move jobs by better career opportunities, 39 per cent for new experiences and 29 per cent for a better work-life balance.

When accountancy-trained Paul Forden, currently chief executive of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital trust, made the move from the private sector to the NHS, he was on the look-out for something more challenging than a good set of accounts and a profit. 'Some people enjoy balance sheets; I always enjoyed management and people, ' he says.

He is concerned that with a new NHS built around payment by results, choice and foundation trusts, the old ways of training people are no longer sufficient.

'They need different skills, ' says Paul. 'We need people from outside now.'

The issue is how to attract them. 'I suspect we need to do some real marketing. First and foremost, we have to talk to them ourselves to find out what their knowledge of the NHS is, ' he says.

'Of all the non-clinical professions [in the NHS] I think finance is the strongest.

That is fine internally - but if externally people are not aware, we are failing.' He says there is a real need to increase recruitment of part-qualified, qualified and more experienced finance professionals into the health service - and that the drive to do this needs to be tackled on a national basis, not at strategic health authority level.

Ian Watts, finance director of Connecting for Health, the agency implementing the national IT programme, had a different reason for his move from the private sector.

His career had spanned sectors as diverse as investment banking, pharmaceuticals, collectible items and insurance. He was looking for a position that offered better security of tenure in a finance world made more uncertain by the post-9/11 downturn.

A combination of perceived job security and a better pension initially saw Ian move to head of finance for a shared services centre in west Kent before his current position. Like Paul he feels there needs to be a flow of finance professionals in and out of the health service if misconceptions about NHS finance are to be addressed.

And private sector recruitment companies can play a role here, too.

'I was getting tapped up on a fairly regular basis once I moved over and they [recruitment agencies] were saying the longer you stay, the harder it is to get back, ' says Ian. 'It is as if You have taken a dreaded step from which There is no turning back.'