Skip to main content

The year of the candidate

Written by: Ben Cox is Director, Executive Search at Penna
Published on: 27 Jan 2022

2021 was another interesting and challenging year for local government, with the sector still dealing with its response to COVID-19 and ensuring service continuity and community well-being and safety.

However, as the year unfolded there emerged more green shoots for the recruitment sector with clear signs of clients revisiting their ongoing structural considerations and starting to plan more readily for the post-pandemic future. Whereas 2020 had been very much a client market with fewer opportunities, and there now being more choice and opportunities, it very much became a candidate market in 2021, especially the latter half.

With the year also seeing a ‘slight’ downturn  and a growing appreciation and familiarity with  the response required from councils compared to the 18 months prior, it also afforded individuals who had previously been too busy, committed and loyal to their organisations, to now begin to consider fresh starts and fresh opportunities.

Inevitably this had an impact on the overall number of senior local government roles and opportunities from a permanent perspective, particularly in the last quarter of 2021. The number of £70k+ roles advertised in The MJ last year increased on 2020 and was back to nearer 2019 levels.

This time last year I predicted that 2021 would see an increase in place based roles given the need for local government to build back better and stronger and to enable economic growth and recovery post-COVID and post-Brexit. This appears to have transpired with place-based roles accounting for 36% of all roles in 2021, up 20% on the previous year. There has also been far more emphasis in the past year on the green agenda and environmental sustainability which has also contributed to this growth in the number of place roles. This, along with trends in other areas can be seen in the following table.


Last year also saw a continuation in the number of chief executive opportunities, with many deciding to retire or move on to new challenges elsewhere. This trend is seemingly going to continue into this year with several further vacancies imminent, particularly in London. With so many highly experienced and well-respected chief executives moving on, the challenge for the sector will be ensuring the calibre and pipeline of talent is in place to continue to make a positive and influential contribution to local government.

Also, we’ll see whether some of these candidates will come from other sectors. Given the highly visible, admirable and stoic job that local government has performed over the past couple of years, it appears to have generated more interest from people outside of the sector, who now genuinely recognise what a rewarding career local government can offer.

Another area that saw continuation of growth and opportunity was in the field of public health. In 2020, this area was in high demand as the pandemic took a grip and the importance of public health rightly came to the forefront. In 2021, the demand for senior public health professionals increased a further 40% on 2020. This has resulted in a very tough and saturated market in public health and once again points to the need to ensure robust pipelines of talent and development exist, along with attracting health professionals into local government.

While corporate services roles decreased overall on last year, there was continued growth in those roles that will be needed to enable local government to respond and change to future working and structural requirements. The areas of HR/OD and strategy and transformation grew by a further 20% on 2020, having also significantly grown the previous year. This trend has also seen a lot more interest from out of sector candidates, where skills are more readily transferrable into local government.

So, what lies ahead for 2022? I personally think this year will continue along the same lines as the second half of 2021. More clients are now in a position where they feel able to push the ‘go button’ on planned and envisaged restructures and transformation of services. What this does mean though, is that the market will continue to be a ‘candidate market’ and competition for roles will be tougher than it has been for a while.

To tackle this, many councils will now rightly be revisiting their employer value proposition (EVP) and refreshing their vision and values, to enable them to attract and retain these in demand and high calibre diverse individuals into the future. There may also be a need for local government as a whole to revisit its talent and succession planning to ensure that individuals are ready and equipped to step up into more senior roles as the needs arise, particularly in key positions such as chief executives and directors of public health. This needs to start from the bottom up.

Part of this planning must be a continued and in some cases increased focus on equalities, diversity and inclusion. From entry level to executive, candidate pools must become more representative of communities served. At Penna, we’re proud of our achievements in supporting clients to be more inclusive in their recruitment strategies and processes. Candidates notice what your recruitment messaging does, and doesn’t, say – so shout about your culture, values and diversity and inclusion action plan and ensure your programme looks for value add, not culture fit.

I’m excited to see how the talent market will change (and most likely change again) in 2022 and very much looking forward to working with our new director, Dawar Hashmi, who joins us in February. If we can help, please get in touch.

Ben Cox is Director, Executive Search at Penna