Why Healthcare is experiencing a recruiting crisis

Where are all the Healthcare & Nursing candidates? Applications are down across the majority of industries – WaveTrackR data revealed the second consecutive monthly dip in July and average applications per job have been falling since the start of the year. However, Healthcare & Nursing is suffering more than most to fill vacancies.

In our July report we found that Health & Nursing had posted the highest percentage of jobs of all industries but without receiving a similar amount of applications, unlike the other industries at the top. It also received the lowest average number of applications per job – just 1 compared to the overall average of 9. The figures make for startling reading and deserve investigation. What is causing this Healthcare recruitment crisis and how can it be tackled?

Bar graph with average application per job for the Health & Nursing recruitment sector
Average Application per Job for Health & Nursing | © WaveTrackR

The main culprits are the pandemic, Brexit, a lack of funding, and general dissatisfaction with workplace culture. There’s a lot to unpick. One thing that we do know is that the pandemic has emphasised the vital role healthcare workers play in society. In surgeries, hospitals and in social care they kept going when many of us stayed at home.

Unfortunately, the pandemic also prompted many overseas healthcare and nursing professionals – vital to the running of our healthcare systems – to return home and Brexit implications may mean that large numbers of those won’t return. Even before the pandemic, we were seeing a huge drop in EU nationals joining UK healthcare teams.

For example, the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) reported an 87% drop in EU nurses joining the register in 2017 and 67% leaving.

Andrea Sutcliffe, who heads the NMC, has said that in the 5 years since the referendum to leave the EU, “recruitment from the European Economic Area has dropped off a cliff”. Some hospitals have been looking elsewhere in the world to fill the gaps that EU workers have left, with countries such as the UAE and the Philippines providing skilled workers.

“Recruitment from the European Economic Area has dropped off a cliff”

Andrea Sutcliffe, Chief Executive of the NMC

The reality is that overseas workers are an essential part of the Healthcare & Nursing sector in the UK. Staffing shortages across the sector are currently at record levels, both in the NHS and private healthcare, but the struggle to recruit and retain enough talent is historic.

Skills shortages have been prevalent for decades. Within nursing, difficulties in recruiting trainee nurses combined with a shortage of degree places have not helped, nor did the 2017 bursary cut for trainee nurses.

Last year the government introduced a new training grant for nursing, midwifery and allied health profession students of at least £5,000 a year. However, half of a nursing student’s course is spent in NHS hospitals which also has to be funded. NHS England has set aside an additional £10 million to pay for 8,000 more clinical placements in hospitals, which will go some way to helping but will certainly not solve the problem entirely. 

One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is a surge of interest in nursing. The NHS reported that between 16th March and 15th April 2020, 74,475 people clicked on the nursing pages of the NHS health careers website, up from 23,018 in the same period last year – a rise of more than 220%.

UCAS received a third more applications to nursing degrees in England in February compared to the same point last year. There has also been an increase of more than 50% in applications among 25 to 34-year-olds and 43% among 35-and-overs, plus a 41% rise in male applicants. These are the nurses of the future – diverse and representative of the communities they work in. What may hamper a potential increase in UK healthcare and nursing talent is a lack of degree places.

NHS England’s chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has called on universities to increase the number of places available to students to try and mitigate this.

What an increase in nursing students won’t help is the immediate recruitment crisis, compounded by a current and near-future leaving of the profession by a substantial number of workers. An ageing workforce is one such issue. The NMC has seen an increase in its register of professionals in the retirement age range. Many may have stayed longer than planned to help during the pandemic, meaning we could see greater workforce losses in 2022. In an NMC survey more than half of nurses, midwives and nursing associates left the register because of retirement, 22% cited too much pressure, and 18.1% left because of a “negative workplace culture”. The latter two reasons clearly need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

This talent shortages lie across the entire sector, in every area and in both public and private healthcare. Private healthcare providers have been placed under growing pressure over the past couple of years as NHS waiting lists have grown astronomically, leading to a greater skills shortage in the private sector than in previous years. What is clear is this – the Healthcare & Nursing sector needs to close its skills gap and focus on retention as well as recruitment.

With WaveTrackR data from the past few months highlighting that there simply aren’t enough candidates in the market, what can policymakers and recruiters do?

What can policymakers and recruiters do:

1. International recruitment

We have relied on EU workers for decades and international recruitment plays an essential role in filling excess vacancies in UK healthcare. Now there is mounting disinclination from European Healthcare workers to work in the UK, should we be focusing our attention elsewhere, to South East Asia, India, the Middle East?

2. Training

Access to training is key. We need to be leveraging the increase in interest in healthcare jobs and providing ensuring that everybody has the opportunity to train, both in terms of course availability and funding.

3. Attraction

The Healthcare industry is vast and covers a wide range of roles, from allied health (physiotherapists, radiographers, occupational therapists, and so on), to ambulance services, to pharmacy, to psychological therapies and a huge number in between. There are also a range of settings, from care homes to hospitals, to medical laboratories and private homes. Each comes with its own pros and cons and that too must be addressed. What all candidates want to know is that the workplace culture will be supportive, that stress will be managed, that pay will be fair, and that there will be opportunities for career progression.

A career in Healthcare & Nursing can be an incredibly attractive option. To do something truly valuable and to really make a difference holds a lot of appeal and which is why Education has had a surge of applications since the pandemic began. But that on its own isn’t enough. Rewarding work needs to be coupled with fair pay and a supportive workplace. Positive employer branding is vital and the non-financial benefits of working for a particular healthcare provider must be emphasised to candidates.

The Healthcare recruiting crisis won’t be quickly solved but it needs to be tackled in a joined-up way, by the government, training providers, employers and recruiters working together to attract talent into the sector – and keep it there.

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