Local governments could be 60,000 workers short

By Paul Hemsley

Councils across Australia are facing an unprecedented shortfall in replacements for retiring baby boomers with the local government sector cautioning it could soon be up to 60,000 staff short unless new talent is recruited to backfill anticipated departures.

Around one third of the nation’s 200,000 local government employees are now estimated to be more than 50 years-old, a figure that equates to 60,000 employees from the “Baby Boomer” generation that will soon need to be replaced – a situation that presents serious staffing challenges in terms of both imminent retirements and the potential loss of valuable corporate memory.

In terms of scale, the number of local government employees estimated to be aged 50-plus is just below the total workforce of Australia Post, which last tallied its workforce to be around 33,000.

To help stem the brain drain, Federal Minister for Local Government, Catherine King has formally launched a strategy aimed at making councils more attractive workplaces for new recruits as the sector seeks to offset the predicted depletion its ranks.

Known as the National Local Government Workforce Strategy 2013–2020, the paper has been released on behalf of Local Government Managers Australia (LGMA), as a consortium partner of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG).

Between them, the organisations are trying to overhaul the image of local government as a workplace by selling councils as more attractive places to work while at the same time addressing the retention of personnel.

Attracting successors for the growing ranks of older employees within the public sector is a serious pressure point for local governments as they try to build sustainable workforces.

A shortfall of suitable staff in the pipeline has the potential to impact service delivery and drive up recruitment costs. Put simply, without action councils could face crisis levels of understaffing where fewer employees have to contend with the extra workloads that the retired workers leave behind them.

One factor that the new workforce strategy tries to address is candidate uncertainty about whether the local government sector is an attractive place to build a career.

Retaining workers in the local government sector is particularly crucial to councils at the moment because of the elevated demand for skilled workers across Australia, a situation that is amplified by the increased burden of service delivery responsibilities that have been shift to councils by other jurisdictions.

Ms King said the latest workforce strategy will build-on and reinforce existing good practices in workforce planning and development and facilitate improvements throughout the sector.

"Local governments are local employers with national reach. This gives them an appealing place in the employment market and allows them to use this unique profile to attract and retain a diverse workforce,” Ms King said.

She said everyone stands to benefit from a stronger local government workforce with improved capability to deliver essential social and community services.

LGMA National President Mark Ferguson called the strategy a “comprehensive” and “consistent” national approach to local government workforce planning and development.

“The strategy addresses this by providing long-term solutions for building diverse and flexible workplaces that draw on local resources to deliver local services,” Mr Ferguson said.

He said the strategy provides for increased investment in skills, improved productivity and the use of technology, maximising leadership and people management skills, and greater integration with the changing political and operational environment in all tiers of government.

“Effective implementation of this strategy will establish councils as the local employer of choice,” he said.

ACELG Chair and former Minister for Local Government Margaret Reynolds said it is not a “one-size-fits-all mandate”, but it is a comprehensive framework and it requires a cooperative effort within local government and between all tiers of government to be effective.

“This requires a rigorous and long-term approach by governments at all levels, and this strategy is a blueprint to achieving this,” Ms Reynolds said.

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