Why IT contractors should look again at the NHS

These are very exciting times for IT contractors who have an interest in working in the National Health Service – and for those who are harbouring that interest unknowingly, writes Don Tomlinson, managing director of max20, a recruitment agency dedicated solely to placing IT contractors in the NHS.

The end of this month will see the radical overhaul of the NHS reach a peak when Primary Care Trusts (PCT) are deemed no longer legal entities and will be replaced by Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG), and Commissioning Support Units (CSU).

What this means for IT contractors is unprecedented opportunity. In fact, many IT positions, especially at higher levels, will be created to deal with the massive organisational changes that are taking place and that cannot be overstated.

NHS becoming more commercial

The NHS has been tasked with becoming more commercial in outlook. With regard to information technology, it has to show clearly increased efficiencies and effectiveness in helping to deliver care. 

It also has to work more collaboratively with organisations within the NHS family.

There is also the possibility that IT services can be utilised outside a specific CCG or CSU, perhaps to other public sector bodies. 

IT investment is high, with many sophisticated projects being implemented.

Indeed, a survey we conducted a few months ago found that nearly half of NHS IT contractors were primarily attracted to working in the organisation because of the scope and scale of the projects.

I believe that these factors will in the next two years intensify and, in turn, improve the prospects for IT contractors at the NHS – Britain’s biggest employer. In terms of demand for IT skills on a temporary basis, I certainly have known nothing comparable at any time since we founded max 20 some 12 years ago.

Does it matter; is the NHS a closed shop?

There is an understandable reluctance on the part of IT contractors who have not worked in the NHS to consider it in their future career plans.

The NHS was not always adept at knowing how to handle contractors; its rates were not competitive and NHS experience was essential to be seriously considered.

Sixty-nine per cent of IT contractors outside the organisation have seriously considered the NHS but 44% have never applied, believing lack of NHS experience made such efforts pointless (according to our recent research based on over 500 replies).

This view was very accurate only a couple of years ago. However it is a time for a rethink from IT contractors.

NHS IT contractor recruitment is undergoing a major shift

We have seen a sea change that only started in the last year or so: IT contractors with the right skills are being considered regardless of sector background. Indeed commercial sector experience can be viewed very favourably.

With the emphasis on being commercial, and the reorganisation of the NHS, new skills and experience are needed that is not often readily available inside the particular NHS organisation.

Moreover many NHS IT staff are leaving through retirement or having to reapply to new bodies that have replaced PCTs, which is increasing existing skills gaps.

Transformation specialists, information analysts, service desks professionals are among a range of skills that are most in demand to those considering the NHS.

There are some roles though that will and do demand NHS experience. These are often centred in the acute sector (such as hospital-based work) where there is a great stability in staff retention.

More reasons to think again

IT contractors outside the NHS that we surveyed stated that career stability (46%) and giving something back (22%) were the most important reasons for considering the NHS.

IT contractors already involved with the health service tend to be in it for the longer-term, with 43% having completed between two and four contracts to date and 22% having fulfilled five to ten contracts. Also according to our research, more than 8% have completed over ten contracts!

There is a fit in expectations on both sides

I believe this is a real window of opportunity for IT contractors but I think the issue, so far, has been communication.

IT contractors were right to seek opportunities in better paid, more sophisticated environments that had experience of knowing how to use their talents.  While that is changing I think the NHS has not done nearly enough to attract candidates.

It is difficult sometimes to change that perception: talent has been lost in the past and it will continue if it is not addressed. The NHS is under pressure to make IT work and work quickly with quantifiable results. This is under increased pressure, as its reputation of yesteryear still lingers in the minds of many in the IT contractor community.   

The challenge is not the opportunity. It is making contractors think again about seriously considering the NHS as a future workplace and client.

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