It seems that barely a week goes by without another example of staff shortages amongst key workers in the health, transport and public services sectors receiving media attention. It is easy to dismiss this trend as interest groups trying to score political points. But the fact remains that throughout our economy, we don’t seem to be very good at ensuring we have the right number of people to deliver the services people need. So what’s the problem – why does workforce planning appear to be so difficult?

When most people hear about a staff shortage, they can be forgiven for thinking that it’s a result of large employers trying to save money by reducing their wage bill. This might be a factor in some situations, but it’s not the whole story. Most large organisations work hard to put the right number of people in the right place at the right time. The problem is they often end up with too many people in some parts of their operation and not enough in others. So workforce planning is more complex than it first appears – what are the key challenges?

Predicting service demand

One of the major challenges that organisations face is how to convert demand for services into quantifiable workload. In some cases this is relatively easy. For example, in railway operations, the service demand is the railway timetable. Regardless of how many passengers are on a train, it still needs a driver. So those companies have a relatively clear picture of how many hours of driving time they need to resource.

However, in other types of organisation, such as call centres or hospitals, each customer needs individual, tailored attention. The service demand here is made up of the number of customers multiplied by the complexity of their needs. As a result, the workload in hours is much harder to quantify.

To add to this challenge, some organisations, such as police forces, have both types of demand. They have fixed requirements, such as manning a custody suite, and they have variable activities, such as responding to an incident.  Often the same workforce is used to resource both types of activity, adding a further dimension to the resourcing puzzle.

Another aspect of planning that can be hard to master is the impact of changes in the pattern of demand. For example, at airports we all know how the actual departure and arrival times of aircraft can sometimes vary significantly from the schedule. This affects the number of passengers moving through the airport, and, as a result, the workload of the check-in desks, security hall and baggage handlers. When the actual activity departs significantly from the schedule, resources can become stretched and when all available contingency is used up, passengers experience longer queues and waiting times.

Understanding changes in the workforce

The next major challenge faced by workforce planners is that the assumptions on which their staffing projections are based are constantly changing. For example, planners have to take account of the levels of annual leave, sickness and other forms of absence, such as compassionate leave, maternity leave or attending training courses.

In many organisations this challenge is exacerbated by having an aging workforce. This situation typically leads to more time off for medical appointments, increasing levels of long-term sickness, and more people available only for “light-duties”.  This is a major problem in some industries. For example, a recent report by the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering highlighted the rail industry’s age profile. 20% of T&RS workers are over the age of 55, and a significant proportion are aged between 45 and 54.

Planners also have the related challenge of forecasting labour turnover caused by resignations, dismissals, retirements and other reasons. None of this is getting any easier. For example, a recent change to legislation, The Employment Equality (Repeal of Retirement Age Provisions) Regulations 2011, abolished 65 as the official retirement age. It is now harder to predict the number of people who will retire in a year, and therefore to anticipate a company’s overall labour turnover.

Similarly, legislation that dictates who has the right to request flexible working was altered in June 2014. Previously only carers and parents with children under the age of 17 were able to make a request, but now every employee with 26 weeks of service has the right to. You can probably foresee how this will have an impact on workforce planning, particularly since the government expects it to be of interest to those approaching retirement.

Covering the job “on the day”

The final big challenge of staff planning is about allocating and deploying people on the actual day of operations. Some people might not consider this as planning, but it is helpful to view workforce planning as a continuum ranging from long-term through to very short-term (on the day) planning.

This type of planning is usually done by an operational manager or supervisor, rather than a planner in an office. The issues faced usually relate to workload variability or unexpected staff shortages caused by late notice absences.

Experienced operational managers may have a range of strategies to deal with these problems. For example, asking people to work overtime or altering how the workforce is deployed. However, these solutions only work up to a point and depend on the quality and motivation of the team.

On a normal day, managers can usually get away with minor resource shortages. Particularly if they have a high quality, committed team. Rather like a well-drilled football team playing with 10 men.  However, even the best team can struggle when there are major problems or disruptions, such as the delays caused to transport systems by severe weather or other incidents. In these situations, the ability to recover back to normal service levels once the operation is stabilised becomes paramount.

This is much more challenging than it sounds, particularly when the resources being re-planned are mobile such as train drivers. The disruption means that people and trains are not in the places they were planned to be, so the logistics of getting these resources back on-plan are considerable.

These types of organisations have well defined back-up plans but they usually need to be tailored to specific conditions on the ground. The result is a sort of multifaceted resourcing puzzle that takes considerable knowledge and experience to resolve optimally. Meanwhile, passengers are kept waiting and have disrupted journeys.


On the face of it, workforce planning might seem relatively straight-forward. However, at each stage of the planning process there are a variety of challenges, none of which are getting any easier. So next time you read about staff shortages, spare a thought for the workforce planners faced with patchy data, unpredictable human behaviour, fast changing employment legislation and operational disruptions!

Alan Erskine is the Managing Partner of Adventis Consulting. He has 30 years of consulting experience and is a specialist in workforce planning and resource management. He has led a wide range of successful assignments for large-scale organisations, and has contributed to strategic government studies.