While investing in professional development has multiple benefits for organisations, arguably one of the biggest is attracting and retaining talent. In a recent poll conducted by Public Sector People, 46% of respondents (the overwhelming majority) said learning and development was their biggest priority when looking for new opportunities. In fact, learning and development (L&D) overtook both salary and flexible working options (which both received 28% of votes) while a council or government's reputation only received 3% of votes. With so many industries within the public sector promoting the fact that they invest in learning, what can your organisation do to stand out from the crowd within a candidate-driven market?
COVID-19 has irrevocably changed the business landscape and as Australia starts to formulate a new model of work, one thing has become clear; the role of learning and development (L&D) has transitioned from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’. According to a recent Linkedin Learning report, there was a significant spike – 130% increase- in the amount of time employees globally, spent learning on the Linkedin Learning platform over the last year (Linkedin, 2020). That’s an additional 4.8M hours- equal to 454 years- of learning since the initial pandemic outbreak last year. Furthermore, the report also asked L&D professionals if their CEOs were active champions of L&D initiatives and 70% said yes. In comparison to the number of CEOs that considered this a priority just seven months ago, there’s been a drastic 159% increase (Linkedin, 2020).
Before covid, many employees weren’t comfortable with using teleconferencing platforms, were unsure how to formulate a virtual onboarding program, or were inexperienced with transitioning events to an online platform. This was especially the case within the Public Sector, where working remotely was less frequent due partly to the legacy systems many departments were working with, the sensitive data organisations were storing and the number of essential services operating within the sector. However, the upheaval of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions forced many within the public sector to drastically change their working processes. During this time employees on mass were learning how to use new technologies and apply their skills in different ways. It created a culture of learning and development and highlighted how integral it is to innovation and problem-solving.
This was further reinforced by this year’s federal budget unveiled earlier this year which aimed to build a more resilient and secure Australia through upskilling Australia’s workforce. $1 billion of government funding was dedicated to extending JobTrainer for another twelve months (a program supporting vocational training and skills development across Australia) as well as improving skills in the digital economy and offering tax incentives for big-scale projects in the games development industry (Bell, J. 2021).
As the public sector navigate a post-COVID workforce now that health restrictions begin to ease, a big focus will be on how the new ways of work established during the pandemic (remote working, flexible hours, workplace health and safety changes etc) will be implemented. Any significant organisational change cannot be effective without support from the leadership team; managers, team leaders, department heads etc. Consequently, those in a leadership position are currently under a new kind of pressure as they navigate through all these changes and policies, and ensure that these changes are not only supported by the greater team but effectively implemented. A great example is the hybrid work model that government organisations and local councils are currently trying to grapple with. With so many employees now wanting to split their working week between the office and home, managers need to consider what this could realistically look like – especially because working-from-home within government is so context-dependent on the organisation, the employee’s home set up, their role within the greater team etc. Implementing an effective policy will not only require managers to negotiate with individual team members and manage flexible working requests on a much larger scale, but it’ll also mean they have to adjust the way they manage and monitor productivity for off-site employees that still fosters a culture of trust  (Coade, M. 2021).
Managing organisational changes like this requires specific skills, which is why so many government agencies are starting to invest in additional management training. Interestingly, leadership and management training is also highly valued by employees and active job seekers. In another poll conducted by Public Sector People, 41% of public sector professionals (the overwhelming majority) considered leadership training to be the most important training for organisations to offer in 2022. Consequently, for organisations wanting to attract new talent, promoting the training programs and initiatives that foster and develop the organisation’s ‘future leaders’ is a great first step. If organisations also have partnerships with online learning modules, offer study leave or host regular workshops, this can all be included in the messaging put out to the public (your company website, job advertisements, social media, external newsletters etc) to ensure they stand out from the competition and appeal to their target audience. In regards to retention, all training options that facilitate leadership management should be clearly communicated and accessible to all staff, especially those within middle to senior management positions. This ensures they feel valued and supported as they try and navigate through all this structural change. Furthermore, the sign of a good learning and development program is one that can be tailored to the goals of an individual and support them as they progress through an organisation and gain more responsibility. Having this in place, again will help employees to feel valued and encourage them to progress with the organisation.
Mental Health Training
While organisations were aware of the positive impact mental health had on their workforce prior to the pandemic (in terms of both employee morale and overall productivity), COVID-19 has emphasised new dimensions of mental health that workplaces now have to consider. With everyone migrating to remote work and having experienced strict social distancing restrictions, many workers have reported feeling nervous, restless and depressed. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over the last eighteen months, two in five (41%) working Australians have felt restless and that everything was an effort and one in six people (17%) have felt the need to seek professional help due to growing levels of depression and anxiety (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021). The reasons for these heightened levels of anxiety and depression are due to the following compounding work factors:
-Feeling isolated from managers, colleagues, and support networks
-Changes to work demand- either experiencing higher or reduced workloads
-Limited control over their job
-The blurring of boundaries between home-life and work-life
-Poor environment conditions (for example, a limited internet connection or lack of space for a proper workplace)
While remote working and social restrictions have triggered heightened stress levels for many, they are also things that for the foreseeable future are sticking around (in some capacity). So, employees need to learn to adapt to their new working situation and develop tools to overcome these negative feelings weighing on their mental health and negatively impacting their work productivity. This is where an organisation’s L&D resources step in. According to Linkedin Learning, 10 times as many learners watched courses on mindfulness and stress management in 2020, compared to 2019 (Linkedin, 2020). This was reinforced by Public Sector People’s own research which revealed that 37% of their network considered mental health to be the most important form of training for an organisation to offer in 2022. Consequently, for organisations to attract and retain talent, while keeping their current staff engaged, they should prioritise mental health & wellbeing as part of their organisation’s L&D curriculum. Ensuring initiatives like stress management, mental health first aid courses or even meditation workshops are effectively communicated and accessible to all staff, will go a long way in creating loyal and engaged employees. Furthermore, promoting these initiatives within your external channels (your website, your social media etc.) and including them within your value proposition will resonate strongly with job seekers during this time and ultimately help you to widen your talent pool.
 Linkedin. (2020). Leading With Learning: Insights And Advice About The New State Of L&D. Linkedin Learning. Retrieved from: https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/learning/resources/pdfs/LinkedIn-Leading-with-Learning-Insights-and-Advice-Report_.pdf
 Bell, J. (2021). Federal Budget 2021: What HR Needs To Know. Human Resources Direction. Retrieved from: https://www.hcamag.com/au/news/general/federal-budget-2021-what-hr-needs-to-know/254793
 Coade, M. (2021). APS ‘Future Of Work’ Trends Call For Extra Middle Management Training. Retrieved from: https://www.themandarin.com.au/173384-aps-future-of-work-trends-call-for-extra-middle-management-training/
 Australian Bureau Of Statistics. (2021). Household Impacts Of COVID-19 Survey. Australian Bureau Of Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/latest-release#emotional-and-mental-wellbeing