Blue skies thinking

Getting and keeping the right talent is a top priority for most organisations, but the challenge is particularly acute for the Environment Agency

The organisation's remit is to protect and improve the environment in England and Wales, at a time when climate change makes droughts and floods increasingly likely – and the need to recruit the right people even greater.

With its headquarters in Bristol and eight regional offices, the agency employs 12,000 people across England and Wales. It is a non-departmental government body that was created in 1996 through a merger of the National Rivers Authority, HM Inspectorate of Pollution and waste management specialists in local authorities.

When the organisation was formed it needed to ensure it had the right skills to meet the growing demands on staff, and during the initial 18-month integration period each region conducted its own recruitment activities. But it quickly became clear that this was not efficient, nor would it support the new single culture the organisation wanted to forge.

"We needed to supplement our technical specialism with strong managerial and leadership capability that would allow us to shift from being 'regulators' of business to 'influential advisers'," explains Anita Wainwright, the agency's HR manager for the north-west region and head of national recruitment. "That was quite a radical change."

One of the first steps the organisation took was to appoint a single external recruitment advertising partner, Work Communications, to help it create a strong employer image that would convey the wide range of opportunities available and attract more of the people it needed. To squeeze as much value for money as possible from its £2 million recruitment advertising budget, HR worked alongside corporate affairs to ensure recruitment served as a marketing tool for the whole organisation.

Adverts previously placed by individual regions were pooled, with huge cost savings.

Wainwright explains: "One year we ran 72 different ads in New Scientist, which cost us about £200,000. We therefore persuaded the different regions to plan more carefully so we could condense our recruitment needs into one page per month, for example." This resulted in savings of about 70 per cent.

Money saved in this way contributed to the funding of a centre of excellence for recruitment for the entire organisation. The National Recruitment Team (NRT), set up in 1999, was designed to foster a more consistent, professional and high-level approach. Though initially it handled responses from the new national campaigns, its remit grew rapidly. The team quickly took on the central recruitment of a new cadre of executive managers who could provide the leadership needed to help the agency achieve culture change. It then worked with occupational psychologists to identify the skills required for these roles and design the appropriate recruitment selection tools.

Then, in 2000, the NRT started to address the way the agency recruited environment officers, who represent about 9 per cent of its staff. Environment officers perform a broad and varied range of customer-supporting roles in the field, advising and reacting to problems in areas such as pollution and planning applications.

"Environment officers are our feedstock and we recruit them on an ongoing basis," says Wainwright. "But we used to hire them on an inefficient 'as needs' basis, which meant there were gaps between people leaving and new people joining. We now recruit ahead of need via three programmes and move them into jobs when they have completed them."

The organisation then looked at how to develop more flood defence engineers, geoscientists and others with skills it desperately needed. In 2004 it set up the Rivers and Coastal Engineering foundation degree, supported by a consortium of universities led by the University of the West of England in Bristol.

Participants are paid a training allowance while they are on the two-year programme, which provides classroom study, work experience and training. The course is open to 35 people a year – from postgraduates to those with no degree or equivalent qualification – and the agency aims to retain as many of them as possible once they have qualified.

However, there are still some management jobs that the agency finds difficult to fill because of a lack of candidates with enough breadth and depth of experience. As a result, it has established a high-potential talent pool where people receive intensive development – a move that, according to Wainwright, has not been divisive. This, she says, is because candidates effectively self-select – and because everyone else in the organisation also gets good training and development opportunities.

The agency is now moving towards a central e-recruitment solution, provided by Oracle, which it expects to roll out early next year. Reed, which handles the recruitment of temps for the agency, will continue to handle short-term tactical recruitment, at least for the time being, but the remainder of the organisation's recruitment needs will be handled through the e-recruitment portal on its website and managed by an expanded National Recruitment Team. In addition, a variety of communication methods will be used to drive traffic to the website and promote the agency's messages on diversity.

The e-recruitment system will allow potential new employees to register their interest, apply and manage their applications online, and stay informed of forthcoming vacancies. Because all applications will be channelled through the portal, the system will create a database of potential employees and, it is hoped, reinforce the sense of the agency as a professional organisation.

Diversity has been a key focus for the organisation and last autumn it launched new branding for recruitment communications and ads. Photographs of white, male, clever-looking types sporting green wellingtons by the side of rivers were replaced with a more contemporary approach that used illustrations to address preconceptions about the agency. And any long-winded, technical, bureaucratic jargon was replaced by snappier copy, which used everyday language to describe the effects of the agency's work and present it as a modern and accessible organisation.

The number of different job titles was also rationalised and job descriptions rewritten to include behavioural as well as technical specifications. Managers were challenged to think more clearly about the nature of their requirements, which, in the past, had been very specific and often seemed to exclude anyone without 10 years' experience and a ream of qualifications.

Other diversity initiatives over the past three years have included setting local targets, establishing priority offices in communities with a high concentration of people from ethnic minorities; and creating a diversity toolkit for managers and HR staff to use in recruitment. The agency's chief executive, Barbara Young, also chairs a diversity action group that meets every six weeks to review progress and agree future direction and, in June this year, the agency was recognised with a CIPD Diversity Excellence Award.

"Because the Environment Agency is less well known in inner-city areas and among black and minority ethnic (BME) groups than it is in more rural areas, one of our key objectives is to engage with all communities, because the environment affects everyone. One way to achieve that is to have a representative employee base," Wainwright explains.

At the beginning of 2004, only 1.6 per cent of employees came from BME groups; over the past 18 months the number has increased by nearly two-thirds. More than 9 per cent of applications from the six most recent national recruitment campaigns have come from these groups, as have 9 per cent of the resulting offers. What's more, a national flood defence recruitment campaign that ran in March yielded a 38 per cent female response, and 38 per cent of offers made were to women.

Those who were interviewed said the agency's family-friendly policies set it apart from other organisations. But its increasingly centralised and professional approach to recruitment also brings other benefits.

For example, a recent campaign to recruit solicitors successfully persuaded candidates earning over £60,000 to take a pay cut of £25,000 to do something "worthwhile" and enjoy a better quality of life. A recent survey showed that 91 per cent of candidates stated that all recruitment communications gave them a good or excellent impression of the business. And, despite its success in attracting greater numbers of more highly qualified people, the agency's attrition rate has remained fairly constant at around 8-9 per cent. It is also on track to achieve its two key targets of 10 per cent of applications from, and appointments of, people from BME groups; and 80 per cent of posts filled after the first advert.

"It wasn't so long ago that very few people understood what the Environment Agency was or did, and our reputation as an employer – especially of top talent – was virtually non-existent," says Wainwright. "As a public body whose entire £950 million budget was focused on making things happen, we couldn't afford to market ourselves to raise awareness. By making our recruitment communications work harder we have informed and educated people generally, and broadened our appeal as an employer as a result."