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The Great Staffing Crisis

View profile for Chloe Pereira
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The Great Staffing Crisis

Some are calling it the “Great Resignation, but “The Great Staffing Crisis” seems apt to me. The UK isn’t short of sectors complaining of desperately challenging recruitment conditions:

  • Hospitality
  • Food & Drink
  • NHS and care sector
  • Retail
  • Haulage

Basically – jobs that don’t involve sitting behind a desk are available in abundance. In last month’s newsletter we reported that the number of job vacancies hit 1 million for the first time since records began. The hospitality industry alone is recruiting for over 100,000 roles, the Road Haulage Association reports a shortage of 70,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers and almost 200,000 retail jobs were advertised in a single week in August.

What’s the cause?

Tim Martin, JD Wetherspoon founder, was a vocal supporter of Brexit and called those who warned of a staff shortage ‘doomsters’. Now he’s demanding ‘a more liberal immigration system’ because he can’t get enough staff.

Undoubtedly Brexit is a huge factor which, combined with the pandemic, prompted record numbers of EU nationals to leave the UK for good. The HGV driver shortage (resulting in the recent fuel crisis) is reportedly mainly due to older, experienced foreign drivers leaving the UK due to Brexit and not enough British candidates applying in their place.

The majority of EU nationals who haven’t qualified for Settled Status now can’t secure roles in the UK without sponsorship – which isn’t available for most of the roles these industries are struggling to fill. The minimum skill level for sponsorship will allow, for example, Wetherspoons to sponsor a chef, but not bar or waiting staff – and it won’t cover HGV drivers.

It’s not just Brexit though, poor pay and conditions are also reportedly contributing to the staffing crisis. Low wages and long, unsociable hours are becoming less tolerated by large numbers of workers. People's priorities and lives have seen a huge shift as a result of the pandemic, with pressure points like childcare provision becoming even more pronounced. There seems to be widespread feelings of being undervalued, demotivated and generally looking for the best opportunities to promote wellbeing and provide a greater work/life balance.

What’s the fix?

The government sent letters to nearly 1 million HGV licence holders in the UK encouraging them to seek out roles in the industry. Up to 4,000 people are to be trained as new HGV drivers and the government also launched a temporary visa scheme for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers.

The hospitality sector is also calling on the government to help, by providing a vehicle for EU nationals to obtain working visas. Currently the immigration rules don’t allow sponsorship of “lower skilled” roles like bar, waiting and kitchen assistant staff.

That isn’t looking likely however, with the government stating: “Visas will not be the long term solution, and reform within the industry is vital. That’s why the government continues to support the [haulage] industry in solving this issue in the long term through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity.”

Are expectations too high?

Anecdotal reports suggest that the expectations of employers, and the recruitment process, are simply unreasonable, and applicants are struggling to secure even entry-level roles. Speak to those with a disability and they’ll tell you their chances are even lower.

I carried out my own completely unscientific research on this – a family member was recently looking for a role in the retail sector. She applied online to a well-known supermarket for a part-time checkout role. There were some lengthy online, situational tests to complete as part of the application. She has over 40 years’ experience in retail, but she didn’t even pass the first stage.

I wondered whether I could land one of the tens of thousands of available retail jobs, and followed the online application process for a retail assistant at a supermarket well known for its low price goods and fast checkouts. Again, the process was to answer a number of situational and aptitude tests.

Having passed the first stage – I felt pretty pleased with myself. Until I failed the second stage and was informed that they, sadly, wouldn’t be progressing my application. Admittedly, it saved me a potentially awkward conversation with either my employer, or said supermarket, and I don’t want to sound big headed but I haven’t always been a lawyer. I actually have a fair bit of retail experience. But I’m not good enough. Neither, as it turns out, is my sister who also gave it a go. She has a very successful career in events – let’s hope she keeps it, because apparently she can’t secure a job in her local supermarket.

So what should employers do?

Clearly we aren’t going to solve the issues in this article – the causes are much more complex and multi-faceted than we can cover, I’ve touched the tip of the iceberg, and there is no magic solution.

However, employers would be wise to focus on how they can attract, motivate, reward and retain staff – focus on wellbeing, employee satisfaction and, ultimately, keeping people happy. Also take a look at your recruitment processes – are you missing out on potentially great candidates due to a rigid, unfit for purpose, recruitment process? Are your equality and diversity practices up to scratch?

Naturally pay will be a major factor, but upping what you pay staff isn’t always going to be an affordable option. There are plenty of other elements you can focus on:

  • Degree of flexibility in working patterns
  • Holiday entitlement
  • Non cash benefits like cycle to work schemes, childcare vouchers, healthcare, gym memberships
  • Those added ‘extras’ like free fruit, pizza Fridays, your birthday off
  • Team building events
  • Autonomy
  • Clarity, support, training and development within roles