Skills shortage in Trading Standards?

A few years ago I made a comment that the cuts to Trading Standards were so severe that we were going past the point of being able to return (in the short to medium term) even if all the money was put back in – one of the main reasons was because we were losing too many skilled staff.

Around 2008 when the financial crisis started, many councils started making cutbacks. This accelerated significantly in 2010 after the Coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came into power. That has pretty much carried on all the way to 2019 and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Different councils have dealt with these cuts in different ways – some just stopped doing a little bit of everything to save money, some just stopped doing certain things totally, some tried to increase revenue by charging for certain services and some tried to outsource to the private sector. 

The bottom line however is that a lot of cuts have been made – and those cuts are in staffing levels.

The trade body, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute carried out a workforce survey in 2017 and some key points are:

  • there has been a 50% fall in actual trading standards spending in the last seven years.
  • 43% of services report that they cannot deal with the consumer detriment in their area
  • 64% feel they cannot recruit or retain skills

I would also point out that not every trading standards responded to the survey – I suspect the figures are worse because it is more likely the least well resourced departments did not respond. If you are reading this and you have the ability to influence your trading standards departments response to these surveys, please ensure they respond in the future because without this sort of data, how can we ever identify and deal with the problem of budget cuts.

Graphic from CTSI Workforce Survey 2017

Two things are clear to me, there are fewer Trading Standards staff than 10 years ago and those staff are not necessarily doing the same work as they were doing in 2007 – for example, many authorities now generate revenue through charging for business advice – so the fact that a council has 10 trading standards staff does not necessarily mean they are working directly in law enforcement – so there are probably even fewer than 50% of trading standards staff working comparatively in the same roles as they were 10 years ago.

Now in order to be a good Trading Standards Officer – you need to be well trained. In my view that is both through in class learning but on the job practical learning. Unfortunately as training budgets have gone down, the number of people training has gone down significantly. The workforce survey makes it clear there are fewer trained/skilled staff and many people are being told to do jobs they are not trained for. This training may either be the formal qualification we have or just going on short courses to gain particular skills.

Now I am not saying being a Trading Standards Officer is the hardest job in the world but in my view, if you are doing all the exams, then it takes at least 2-3 years to become proficient in the law and in particular have the practical skills such as being able to investigate crime. I generally (but not always) see a difference between those that were trained ‘properly’ and those that have learned on the job.

Let us use the Police as an analogy. Would a person who just follows a Police Officer around for 2 years be as good as one who was taught everything in a structured way from a proper tutor? I should caveat this by saying there are many areas of trading standards work where you can become good at the job other than by doing the ‘official’ qualification as you can learn skills on other courses but overall the more training the better in my view. There are some areas of work in trading standards that cannot be undertaken unless you have a formal qualification such as food standards and weights and measures. One of the problems in trading standards is that there is no real standard that can be applied to all staff unlike in other professions such as law, medicine or accountancy, where in order to carry out certain types of work you may have to achieve a certain level of training/knowledge/experience.

So since we have had all of the cuts, we have lost A LOT of experienced people (either formally trained or not formally trained). Generally a lot of the older staff that had 25 plus years of experience have most likely retired (maybe via voluntary redundancy) and I am aware a lot of councils have removed layers of management so a lot of experienced people have been lost that way as well (i.e. redundancy).

Interestingly though – over the past 6 months or so, I have seen a lot of jobs being advertised in the Trading Standards world (that is relative of course, because it does not necessarily mean that overall numbers are going up, its most likely replacing people that have left).

What I have noticed however is a real struggle to recruit people. The simple fact is

  • there are not enough trained people out there
  • in order to move jobs people want more money (often it will mean a house move to a different council area) and councils are limited in what they can pay as salary

I am aware of both within my council and other councils of jobs being advertised but not being filled – often no applications are received from anyone with the relevant skills.

What does this result in? Councils will either not fill those jobs (which is what we did with ours) or they will settle for less skilled people (lower standards). The latter is not a problem, per se, IF that person was then trained to the required level (which could take some time). In my experience though that does not happen or the person is not trained up to the level someone may have been 10+ years ago. Ultimately lower skilled staff means a poorer outcome for the customer (i.e. taxpayers).

I am aware of one council which back in the day let around 10 staff go and around 1 year later tried to re-hire around 10 staff. I’ve since seen them advertise numerous posts. Whether that is because the department is now so bad that no one wants to work there or because they cannot fill posts, I don’t know.

My own council advertised a job but could not find anyone. Part of the problem is we cannot pay more to attract people because almost every job in a council is within a grade boundary and you generally cannot deviate from that to pay more money. Even if we did pay more that would just poach someone from another council – it would not solve the wider problem of diminish skills and knowledge.

Sadly the only people who benefit from this are the dodgy businesses who can continue to operate because trading standards cannot deal with them.

Chartered Trading Standards Institute workforce survey