Solving the U.K. Staffing Crisis Isn’t Just About Paying More or Embracing Modern Working

Updated: Jan 17


  • The issues behind the staff shortage are more fundamental than the pandemic or Brexit

  • Recent recruitment campaigns have not succeeded because they have focused on what people want to hear

  • As the job market becomes more competitive, businesses will need to do more and more to encourage people to join them and their sector


Recent statistics about the scale of staff shortages should send alarm bells ringing across all businesses (regardless of sector) and the government. Total vacancies in the U.K. rose to 1.2 million in September, with all industries impacted – hospitality currently has an estimated 200,000 unfilled positions, with motor garages about 35,000 short.

This is already having an effect on businesses and consumers alike. While supply chain issues have been well-documented, there is also a strong possibility that many pubs, restaurants, and hotels are likely to be forced to close over Christmas due to a lack of full-time staff, the end of the furlough scheme, and student part-time staff going home for the University holidays. This is of such concern to businesses that Matthew Fell, the chief policy director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), recently stated:

“From HGV drivers to hospitality, from skilled food manufacturing workers to expert trades in construction, there’s no doubt that staff shortages are putting pressure on the post-pandemic recovery.”

With these threats and warnings in mind, action to fill in the gaps and ensure businesses and supply chains operate as normal is much needed.

What Is Being Done

The group taking the most action to recruit new staff members are businesses themselves. This is being done in several ways, with the offering of sizeable sign-on bonuses, increasing pay, and increasing the number of extra perks that come with a role being the most common. Another approach taken by some businesses is accept that they have fewer staff than is required to operate fully, and reducing the number of products and services they offer as a result.

It is obvious, however, that this is not sustainable long-term; neither for the businesses financially nor the for the industries where workers with the necessary training and qualifications are going to be increasingly difficult to come by.

Government attempts to plug the gap in staffing have a limited impact. One example of this is the Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme, first introduced in March 2019. Originally designed to allow a limited number of migrants to work in the U.K. horticulture sector for 6 months, it was recently used to 5,000 HGV drivers (until February 2022) and 5,500 poultry workers (until December 2021). While these schemes will put a temporary seal over the leak, it will not solve them.

Solutions

Resolving these staffing issues, especially in sectors where specialised training and specific qualifications are required, such as HGV driving and many roles in the public sector.

The recent move from net migration targets to a points-based immigration is designed to reduce the overall number of, and give the U.K. more choice over, people who arrive in the U.K. to work. It is vital to remember, however, that many U.K. employers rely on overseas talent, with 15% of workers in the NHS and 16% of the total U.K. workforce born outside the U.K. The fact that there has been a 36% decrease in the number of EU workers looking for work since Brexit is therefore concerning. While there is a possibility for Skilled Worker Sponsor Licences for more highly-skilled roles, the standard processing time for one is between 8-12 weeks, and only valid for four years. It is also important to repeat that this is only for more skilled roles, with many jobs in the public sector (especially in care) not qualifying as a skilled role for the sake of this scheme or the new points-based immigration system. More foreign labour will not be sufficient on its own to address the U.K. staff shortages.

The only way we are going to address this issue is by making better use of our domestic workforce – both by addressing skills gaps and by making jobs in certain sectors more appealing. Let us go through both individually.

Addressing Skills Gaps

Offering higher wages and more perks with a job only works if there are people sufficiently qualified to take the job in the first place. A recent study by the Open University showed that:

  • 91% of businesses have struggled to find workers with the appropriate skillset over the past twelve months.

  • 61% of business leaders saying the skills gap has widened over the past year.

This is making recruitment for many businesses more expensive and time-consuming, at a time where the finances of many businesses are still recovering from the lockdowns of the previous 18 months. How businesses and the government should go about addressing this is not clear-cut, with differing industries facing unique issues that renders a one-size-fits-all approach redundant. While there is a big difference in the training and recruitment processes in vocational, digital, and public sector jobs, ranging from the length of time and cost of the training to how often the worker’s knowledge base needs to be updated (especially in the digital space), one similarity they all have is that the number of people available to work in these industries is entirely dependent on how many go through the training process.

It is clear investment in training, both from businesses and the government, are needed here. From a business perspective, it will help in the long-term by increasing employee loyalty to your business, and the inclusion of company culture as part of the training means the business will likely have better team morale if you invest in them.

Making Jobs/Certain Sectors More Appealing

The job market is the most active it has been for a long time, with vacancies in many sectors coupled with workers taking the slow return to normality as a good time to have a career change. This mobility has led to a fight for potential new recruits.

To get the top talent, your industry must be seen as more attractive a space to work than where they are currently. This is not as simple as it would first appear, with the latest government campaign for care recruitment (‘Made with Care’) a clear example of this. One does not have to go back too far into the past to recall similar campaigns to recruit people into care, with openly embracing the modern trends of flexible working and having a job that makes the worker feel like they’re making a difference not enough in itself to secure enough new recruits. People need to be convinced by real, visible change in investment, conditions, and pay in order to encourage them to train themselves up and join your sector and business. The general view of working in the care sector amongst the general populace at the moment is that you are overworked, underpaid, and often stressed. So long as that perception remains, there will remain staff shortages for a long while to come.

Conclusions

There are too many long-term, structural issues that led to the current staff shortages we are currently experiencing in the U.K. to simply say we can adequately cover it with foreign labour. While a potential part of the solution in the short-term, it is no more than a sticking plaster.