The mystery of Britain’s missing workers

by Robert Plummer
Business Reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images

As the UK economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic, various sectors are reporting staff shortages.

The easing of the lockdown has prompted employers to start recruiting. UK job vacancies have reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic.

Yet, astonishingly, the latest employment statistics show that one in 20 people who want a job are unable to find a job.

Hospitality, for example, is struggling to find staff, and there is a shortage of lorry drivers. Many other sectors also face similar problems.

Where have all the workers gone?

In the words of Kate Nichols, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, the sector has “the wrong employees in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

image copyrightPA Media
image CaptionEmployees in the hospitality industry often work long hours

Students and trainees, who often work part-time in hospitality, have had their studies disrupted by COVID and are not at their usual places of learning. Other workers have moved away from big cities to save money during the pandemic.

But, as Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, points out, the hospitality sector has trouble keeping employees at the best of times.

“The business in this area is very high,” he told the BBC. “About half of people change jobs every year. Too many firms have found that people move on to other things.”

Kate Shusmith, deputy chief executive officer of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), says there was a shortage of cooks even before the pandemic.

But during the lockdown, she says, many have sought other types of work and are reluctant to return to the “quite brutal” culture of long hours and night work.

“They have shifted to other areas where they can work during the day, take proper breaks and more time with their families,” she says.

Is this labor shortage spreading?

There are indications that the retail sector is also feeling the pinch.

In the early days of the pandemic, supermarkets and other essential stores were able to recruit workers who had previously been employed in restaurants and pubs. Now the competition for those people’s labor is high.

Tamara Hill, employment policy advisor at the British Retail Consortium, says the shortage was traditionally made up by non-UK workers.

“This shortfall has been impacted by barriers within the UK’s new immigration rules and a restricted apprenticeship levy that does not currently address scarce skills,” she says.

Are some age groups affected more than others?

Especially the youth have been badly affected by this. “The proportion of youth facing unemployment is higher than in other age groups, because they lack experience and employers may be at risk,” says Ms. Shoesmith from REC.

image CaptionYoung workers still face higher rates of unemployment than the general population

Mr Wilson of the IES says more youth in full-time education have stopped trying to quit at the same time – 2.4 million, compared to 2.1 million a year ago.

However, he adds that many young people have managed to find more rewarding work during the pandemic: “A third of young people now engaged in high-skilled work were in medium or low-skilled jobs a year ago.”

And younger workers are more mindful of customer-facing roles, says Mr. Wilson. “They don’t want to put themselves at risk of catching COVID. They haven’t been vaccinated.”

Are other areas particularly under pressure?

According to Ms. Shoesmith of REC, the transportation industry is facing a shortage of drivers. “There were a large number of people from Romania and Bulgaria taking up driving jobs,” he told the BBC.

image copyrightGetty Images
image CaptionIt’s harder to drive UK lorries as economy opens

He remained in the UK after the Brexit referendum, but began to leave when the pandemic struck. “They have either worked in their home countries or they feel it is not right to return to the UK because of Brexit or the pandemic.”

Ms Shoesmith says the UK is estimated to have a shortage of 30,000 large goods drivers.

What about foreign workers in general?

It appears that many EU citizens working in the UK have returned home. According to Ms Nichols of UK Hospitality, 1.3 million foreign workers left the UK during the pandemic.

“It took up a huge chunk of the economy, and it has an impact on the economy as a whole,” she says.

image copyrightReuters
image CaptionWarehouse workers are in high demand

However, Mr Wilson of the IES argues that it has more to do with Covid than Brexit.

“With these quarantine arrangements, many people who have the right to work here are not taking them. If you’re in Spain or Poland, you’re not coming to the UK to get a job,” he says.

But he cautions that international job search websites such as Adzuna have seen a “massive drop” in the number of foreign workers seeking jobs in the UK.

“There is a serious problem in some industries right now, but in the long term, it could become chronic because of Brexit,” he says.

Other factors affecting the labor market

The furlough scheme of the government has helped lakhs of people to stay in jobs. But Ms. Shoesmith of REC says there are unintended consequences.

“With government support still in place until the end of September, the danger is that if people come off holiday and there’s another lockdown, they can’t go back to that. You have to start all over again,” she says Huh.

As a result, some people who are being approached about job opportunities are reluctant to come on leave to pick them up, she says.

Xiaowei Xu, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, believes the impact could be deeper.

“If the pandemic leads to structural changes in the economy, with less demand for the High Street and more for e-commerce, then that change could be delayed,” Ms Xu said.

What else do we know about the long-term effects?

Mr. Wilson of IES believes that in the future businesses will need to pay more attention to how they recruit, train and treat employees.

“When firms say, ‘We can’t get employees,’ they mean, ‘We can’t get experienced employees,'” he says.

But with unemployment still at 1.7 million, there is a “large labor pool” of people who can take those jobs, he says.

This means accepting and training less experienced staff, as well as providing more support to those with health conditions or care responsibilities.

“It’s not necessarily about salary, it’s about offering better terms,” ​​he says. “Employers haven’t had to do this for a decade.”

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