Workforce planning

What is workforce planning?

“Workforce planning is a process of analysing the current workforce, determining future workforce needs, identifying the gap between the workforce you will have available and your future needs, and implementing solutions so that an organisation can accomplish its mission, goals, and strategic plan.” CIPD

This guide shows workforce planning as a series of steps. However, it is important to understand that it is not a rigid, simplistic, linear process. Consider three key aspects of any workforce: people, purpose and pounds (finances). It is important to remember that:

  • People are all different, and they will all have their own drivers (consider the evolving needs/wants of our existing workforce, the public we serve and our communities)
  • Purpose can change over time as different local, regional, and national political agendas influence how the organisation delivers its services; statutory services also change, as do priorities and expectations from the government body overseeing fire and rescue services, and oversight and inspection requirements, etc.
  • Pounds (or finances) covers income and expenditure, and savings and investments; there is lack of certainty arising from financial settlements in public sector organisations, which are often short in business terms and subject to change

Benefits of workforce planning

Workforce planning is beneficial because it:

  • Creates a clear view of both the supply and demand of people in key areas
  • Focuses and prioritises attention in the right areas in a timely manner
  • Helps to determine the right number of people required now and in the future
  • Helps assess the cause of employee turnover
  • Allows services to prioritise employee retention strategies appropriately
  • Minimises interruptions in the business plan
  • Anticipates and plans for change
  • Drives investment in the right areas

Six steps of the workforce planning process

Many key actions and activities can be used to help identify talent and deploy it successfully. They will be different for each organisation and service, but broadly speaking, the workforce plan is a good starting point. There are six main steps in the workforce planning process, as outlined in this diagram:


six steps workforce planning


This guide explores each of the six steps and suggests areas to consider for each of them.

Step 1: Understand the organisation and its environment

There are a number of issues that you might consider when working to understand the organisation and its environment.

Community Risk Management Plan (CRMP), Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) and strategic plan

These documents and plans offer a balance between the direction of travel for the service and the financial, human, political, technological resources available to meet the statutory requirements of the service.

The CRMP/IRMP/strategic plan cannot be developed without reference to the political environment (local, regional, national and UK-wide). This environment will differ for each fire and rescue service as they are governed in different ways – by national assembly, regional mayoralty, city mayors, police/fire/crime commissioners, fire authorities – and may be integrated within a local or county council arrangement.

The CRMP/IRMP/strategic plan will also be influenced by the HMICFRS inspection outcomes, areas for further improvement and the State of Fire report produced.

Financial situation/settlement

The financial situation of the service itself (reserves, income/outgoings) should be clearly laid out and used to inform the workforce plan.

The financial settlement from central, national, regional or local government and/or any other authority and/or each local authority area (for regional fire and rescue services) should be integral to the plan. The short-term nature of funding settlements can make longer-term planning challenging; in such circumstances, financial planning should take the form of modelling for best-, likely- and worst-case scenarios, with staffing and service delivery considerations being built into the plan.

The workforce plan ought to also consider the pay awards that are likely to be approved. They are difficult to predict, but for financial planning a reasonable best estimate may be used.

Environmental/climate considerations

Terrain, complexity of the physical environment, climate considerations – such as an increase in wildfires, rising sea levels and more regular extreme weather events – and other risk factors should be carefully considered. They will vary between services and according to the risk-profile mapping.

Local factors will influence the types and depth of training provided, to equip people with the skills, knowledge and behaviours to deliver on the priorities outlined. These priorities should be considered as part of your workforce plan.

Identify essential roles and services

This activity is focused on carefully assessing which roles are essential to comply with legislation and funding requirements. The core fire and rescue services will be involved, such as:

  • Promoting fire safety
  • Emergency response and rescue
  • Responding to major emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, flooding and chemical release
  • Fire, petroleum and explosives regulatory enforcement

After considering the essential roles, prioritise the remaining roles and/or services that the fire and rescue service delivers. This activity may lead to challenging discussions with politicians, community groups and senior teams, culminating in some difficult decisions. Considering roles in this way supports financial resource planning and informs the workforce plan.

Step 2: Analyse the current and potential workforce

A key step in preparing your workforce plan is understanding your workforce by thinking about your people and their various stages in the employee lifecycle.1 Getting this right will help you to attract and keep talent.

Plan to develop and promote your employer’s brand: it helps to attract the right talent. People often know the visible symbols (fire appliances, stations, etc.), but efforts should be made to clearly communicate organisational purpose and values, alongside sharing the diverse range of roles and people who work within your service.

Implement innovative recruitment practices. The specifics will vary from role to role and from service to service. It is important to take on board best practice, such as:

Being ‘loud’ about your employee benefits.

Share your ‘psychological contract’2 widely. Be overt about what people give and get, including hidden benefits such as gym access, discounts, and time to learn, for example.

Think about diversity and inclusion in a business-focused way. Look at inclusivity for protected characteristics as a positive and share potential organisational benefits which arise (for example, flexible working, neurodiversity, family-friendly processes and shift patterns) and target recruitment to improve your organisational profile and attract talent from underrepresented groups. It is important to consider the existing organisation too; any plans for positive action, for example, should bring the workforce along, rather than making people feel left out.


Carefully track and measure your operational resilience now and in the future.

Highlight potential gaps arising through retirement, promotions, people considering leaving (flight risks) and potential life events. Example activities include:

  • Incentivising people to give longer notice periods to aid better workforce planning
  • Opening up dialogues and engaging with people about ‘going’, ‘staying’ and ‘growing’ plans; use your appraisal scheme to talk more about career plans
  • Opening up communication channels with everyone, but in particular:
    • People considering leaving (flight risks); have a simple conversation during appraisals, promoting dialogue and focusing on whether people are thinking of leaving or seeking promotion, and the timescales of their ‘plans’
    • Potential retirees; avoiding ageism or assumptions, seek better dialogue with employees who may become eligible to retire in order to better understand any plans they have (speaking to everyone about when/if they are considering leaving and how is much more inclusive)
  • Offering ‘pre-retirement’ support/workshops; this approach to supporting individual choice is another ‘psychological contract’ gain for employees, but also aids proactive workforce planning
  • Encouraging longer-term employees to share their expertise and experience to inform talent/succession processes
  • Reassuring retiring employees that the organisation can and will provide access to ongoing support (such as pensions); consider extending the provision of your Employee Assistance Programme to cover former employees too
  • Holding regular career conversations with people to identify career goals informally and formally to indicate where the organisation should focus resources (for example, the Apprentice Levy, qualifications budgets and other training requirements)

Seek employee engagement and information.

Within staff surveys or similar reviews, include a question asking whether people are thinking of retiring in the next six months, year, three years or five years. Though anonymised, the answers will indicate what you need to consider for workforce planning. This rich data can help when considering workforce resilience and potential trainee firefighter course programmes.


Be open.

As your plan develops, regularly engage with your people and be as open as you can. People are suspicious of ‘radio silence’: if there’s nothing to say, say that!


Involve your people.

Seek input, advice, guidance and suggestions from your workforce. Use focus groups, asking wide ‘what if’ questions, and use appreciative inquiry3 techniques to understand what works well (so you can do more of it) and what we would do in an ideal world. Develop plans to move forward with your people.

1 The stages of the employee lifecycle are attract, recruit/onboard, develop and offboard/separate.

2 According to CIPD, ‘psychological contract’ refers to ‘individuals’ expectations, beliefs, ambitions and obligations, as perceived by the employer and the worker.

Appreciative inquiry is a tool for strategic thinking and planning based on growing what works and dreaming about what could be.

Step 3: Determine future workforce needs

Once you have a good picture of your service as it is, and how it will move forward, the next step is to determine exactly what you need for the future, based on the financial information and other assumptions made.

Think about:

  • The skills you need
  • The knowledge you need
  • The values and behaviours you need people to display

As outlined earlier, one approach is to develop scenarios for must-do, should-do and could-do activities, and what the people delivering those activities need to know, understand and do.

Think about:

  • Technological details (ICT, software, equipment, resources)
  • Technical developments (new approaches, better equipment)
  • Risk mapping (growth areas, obsolete or reducing areas)

Step 4: Identify workforce gaps against future needs

Considering the skills and knowledge you already have within the workforce and what you will need (your future plan), you can identify and decide what to do about the gap between them. To define your organisational needs, think about:

  • Engaging with your workforce to identify whether people have the skills you need (this process will highlight gaps that you may not be aware of)
  • Using a simple skills survey
  • Developing your appraisal system to capture skills that are not regularly used
  • Enabling people to share their certificates and qualifications, to add them to your people data

Step 5: Actions to address skills shortages, surpluses or mismatches

To address skills shortages, consider:

  • Upskilling existing colleagues
  • Using apprenticeships for existing or new people
  • Implementing catch-up learning or training programmes for affected roles
  • ‘Buying’ skills through recruitment, creating additional roles or outsourcing
  • Reviewing job descriptions or person specifications to capture gaps in future recruitment and development
  • Using talent/succession planning
  • Looking at development rates for operational roles which lack the core skills, with a clear programme to fill the gap and achieve competent pay
  • Developing a ‘promotions/talent pool process’ approach, which enables people to develop in advance of roles becoming available (split up the requirements between those skills needed on ‘day one’ and those which could be acquired or developed while in the role)

How to address skills surpluses

Where the skills are either no longer required or fewer people need to have the skills, this situation should be communicated clearly to the affected people and employee consultation should begin (where pay or grading is likely to be examined).


  • Developing a retraining programme to enable people with skills no longer required to be redeployed elsewhere
  • Using redundancy or early retirement (objectively) to reduce the pool of unused talent

How to address skills mismatches

Where the people in the roles have skill sets which are mismatched, a combination of training and support is required. However, where the mismatch is too great, redeployment, redundancy or early retirement may be the only remaining options.

Wherever practical, provide people with plenty of notice and a timeline for meeting the requirements. However, where the only option is for an employee to leave the service, ensure that they are able to exit with dignity.

Step 6: Monitor and evaluate actions

The final step when preparing the workforce plan is monitoring and evaluation, which can include:

  • Carefully planning and monitoring when the skills required need to be ready to deliver on the service priorities
  • Considering success measures (refer to NFCC Evaluating your talent management approaches document)
  • Gathering appraisal data
  • Identifying individual training needs and service/team requirements
  • Talking to your people openly and honestly at the earliest opportunity; once plans are fully formed and implemented, it is important to check in with people to establish whether their views are captured and give ongoing feedback
  • Setting clear evaluation measures upfront and measuring against them; evaluation will vary, but information such as response times, successful incident outcomes, and learning and financial data will all support this (combine hard measures, like data, and soft measures, like people, public perception and press responses)
  • Monitoring and reporting on progress regularly, setting shorter-term interim targets and measures for long-term goals
  • Talking to people to gather soft monitoring data and reviewing the targets set to establish how they can be further dissected to create shorter-term targets, milestones or interim measures
  • Sharing your successes and the learning points gleaned from the monitoring and evaluation widely (where appropriate), as this helps support a culture of transparency
  • Sharing where lessons have been learnt
  • Making sure that your communication is as much about listening as it is about telling people things; think carefully and react appropriately so that even the most cynical of your service employees feels listened to