Why tackling the labour shortage requires addressing the causes (and empathetic recruiting)

Unemployment is down, employment is up and jobs are soaring. In many ways, the labour market is stronger than it has been for many months.

However, we are currently facing a labour shortage that looks set to remain well into 2022 and very possibly beyond that. WaveTrackR data has shown that the gap between jobs and applications has been consistently wide over the past 6 months and that is not looking likely to change in the short term. How do we plug the gap, encourage more people into work and fill the UK’s record 1.2 million vacancies? 

The government thinks it has the answer. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  has announced new rules for those claiming universal credit in an attempt to get 500,000 benefits claimants into jobs by the end of June.

Claimants will have four weeks (shortened from three months) after their initial claim to find a job in their chosen field. From that point, they will have to make “reasonable efforts” to be employed in a job in any sector or they will have part of their universal credit payment withdrawn.

Billed as the ‘Way to Work’ campaign, it is aimed at getting those that can work into work by any means and is a controversial tactic. 

Some will say this is the right thing to do. Why should people be receiving benefits while there are plenty of jobs out there? But does this enable quality placements? Does this help people into long-term employment? Does this help those who struggle to find suitable work because of disabilities or caring responsibilities?

Something needs to be done to encourage and enable those out of work back into employment but is forcing people into work – any kind of work – the right thing to do?

Perhaps the word ‘enable’ is key here. Many people of employment age who aren’t currently in employment aren’t scrolling past job ads because they’re fussy or don’t want to work but because they find working in particular roles or industries difficult for a variety of different reasons. 

The most successful placements are those where there is a good skills match, where the opportunity is suitable for the jobseeker and in cases where it is mutually beneficial for both candidate and employer.

Policies such as the one the DWP has announced can be damaging to a wide range of diverse candidates, such as those with disabilities or with caring responsibilities who may find it difficult if a job doesn’t offer flexibility or if the pay doesn’t cover childcare costs.

To ensure high-quality placements the work and conditions need to be appropriate for each individual. And that might mean focusing on measures to enable those who are out of work for a variety of different reasons to enter the workforce.       

Rather than scare tactics, should we not be redoubling efforts into skills training, increasing flexibility in the workplace and improving workplace conditions?

Helping people get ready for and find suitable and appropriate jobs benefits everyone – the individual, the employer, the recruiter, the economy and society in general – and is a long-term solution.

Other countries are trialling such solutions, whereby they try to address the reasons for some not feeling able to work.

Italy is aiming to tackle childcare issues to help more women feel enabled to work. Rome is hoping to create 264,480 childcare places over the next four years as part of a plan to boost the numbers of women and young people in the labour market.

Germany is increasing its minimum wage to €12 an hour to entice workers.

In France, where a survey has found that 54% of businesses in the services industry are facing recruiting difficulties, the government is offering subsidies to help the long-term unemployed to train with employers that are struggling to fill vacancies.

Spain, meanwhile, is trying to pass legislation that would enable them to fine companies who employ staff on temporary contracts without adequate justification – an attempt to make jobs more secure for workers. 

These are great examples of labour market reforms that are aimed at helping people feel enabled to work and improving working conditions. That is what is needed in the UK  – policies that address the biggest impediments to work, whether that comes from government or individual businesses.

Skill building is vital, helping people to adapt and grow their skills to take on roles that have changed enormously in the past few years. We must also embed flexible working policies into the fabric of businesses so that an entire cross-section of society can feel better able to join the workforce. Improving the childcare infrastructure by making it less expensive and more accessible will help facilitate thousands of mothers to return to work.

The National Audit Office has previously found no evidence that benefit sanctions encourage people into jobs. The worry is that all this will do is increase deprivation amongst certain demographics and make finding a job that matches their skills and circumstances even harder. It could cause undue stress for people already facing a great deal of stress and anxiety.

And for those that do end up in a job that they’ve been forced into, regardless of skills and experience matches, the likelihood that this will be of long term (or even short term) benefit to either employee or employer is low.

Many are worried that this is a knee-jerk response to an issue that needs long-term solutions. Skills training, flexible working policies tailored to the individual, fair pay, better childcare provision. Tackle the problem at its root and long-term success is far more likely. 

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