It’s headline news that more than 1 million vacancies have gone unfilled for around 3 months. And analysis reveals that key sectors are facing labour and skills shortages that are likely to deepen, creating a wide range of social and economic impacts. Effects such as shortages on supermarket shelves, increasing delays to healthcare services and shortages of key specialist staff in engineering, software, veterinary care and education are likely to lead to a range of problems.
The crisis has led to some employers introducing financial inducements or ‘signing on bonuses’. For some HGV recruits it may be as much as £2,000; however, for some highly qualified care workers payments of £5,000 and £10,000 are being offered.
This indicates how serious and desperate the situation is facing some businesses and organisations. It also highlights the fact that luring a skilled practitioner to a job where they are essential to safe care services being delivered probably means that they are leaving a gap in the capability of their former employer. This may impact safe service delivery, placing service users or patients at risk.
According to the REC and industry data, some of the most acute worker roles and shortages are for:
Underlying the practice of offering cash payments for signing on is the perception that you can simply buy your way out of the crisis. That may have been possible in the past when new skilled workers from overseas could enter the labour market with relative ease, but now it is just not that simple.
Brexit has thrown up barriers to the movement of EU citizens into the UK, and Covid has increased demand for foreign healthcare workers to stay home to help their own nations, or to pursue opportunities in other more desirable or lucrative countries.
The clamour from business leaders for government action is growing. Some warnings of continued disruption in the short term centre on Christmas, with the prospect of significant shortages in shops.
Key retailers such as Tesco have warned that driver shortages were making it difficult to keep up with current demand, let alone allowing it to build up the surplus of stock essential for meeting the spike of the festive season. Richard Walker, the MD of Iceland, believes that adding HGV lorry drivers to the essential and skilled worker list is the simple solution.
This echoes the wider call of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for the Shortage Occupation List, which allows companies to recruit skilled workers from the EU and the rest of the world, to be extended to include other types of in-demand workers, including butchers and bricklayers.
In what some see as an idealised view lensed through Brexit, the UK government continues to insist that employers need to do more to recruit and retain British workers, with the Home Office saying, “Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”
However, the approach of CBI director-general, Tony Danker, is more pragmatic and helpful. “The government needs to take a sector view of the challenges and identify solutions that can have an impact quickly. That could mean being agile in the way we use our immigration system to bring in fixed term visas for shortage occupations,” he said.
From the point of view of employers and recruiters, it is clear that the UK has a systemic labour shortage problem. The argument about Brexit may be over, but the fallout still has to be dealt with. Many think that the government’s blinkered and somewhat idealistic stance needs to be tempered, by adopting a more practical approach to ending the shortages of workers that are pivotal to meeting a range of needs for business and society.
For recruiters in sectors and for roles where there are shortages, the government’s current attitude is likely to be frustrating. However, it is highly likely that we’ll see a U-turn. Pressure is set to mount, and as the gap between supply and demand increases, disruption takes hold and voters get unhappier, there is likely to be significant shift in the government’s position, allowing recruitment from the EU and further afield.
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