• December 9, 2023

The mystery of the UK’s missing workers

By Robert Plummer
Economic reporter, BBC News

Image rightsGetty 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 vacancies have reached their highest level since the beginning of the pandemic.

Confusingly, however, the latest employment figures show that one in twenty people looking for a job cannot find one.

For example, the hospitality industry is struggling to find staff and there is a shortage of truck drivers. Several other sectors face similar problems.

Where did all the workers go?

In the words of Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality trade association director, the sector has “the wrong workers in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Image rightsPA mediaImage descriptionHospitality workers often work long hours

Students and trainees, who often work part-time in the hospitality industry, have disrupted their studies due to Covid and are not in their regular training position. Other workers have moved from big cities to save money during the pandemic.

But, as the Director of the Institute for Employment Studies Tony Wilson points out, the hospitality industry struggles to keep staff at the best of times.

“This sector has a very high turnover,” he told the BBC. “Almost half of the people change jobs every year. Many companies have found that people just switch to other things.”

Kate Shoesmith, vice chairwoman of the board of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), says there was a shortage of chefs even before the pandemic.

But during the lockdown, she says, many people looked for other types of work and were reluctant to revert to the “fairly brutal” culture of long hours and night work.

“They have moved to other sectors where they can work during the day, have real breaks and have more time with their families,” she says.

Is this labor shortage spreading?

There are signs that the retail sector is now feeling the dilemma.

In the early days of the pandemic, supermarkets and other critical businesses were able to recruit workers who were previously employed in restaurants and pubs. Now there is more competition for these people’s workforce.

Tamara Hill, employment policy advisor at the British Retail Consortium, says that shortages have traditionally been filled by non-UK workers.

“This shortage has been influenced by barriers within the UK’s new immigration regime and a limited education tax that does not take into account current skills scarce,” she says.

Are some age groups more affected than others?

Young people are particularly hard hit. “The percentage of young people who are unemployed is higher than other age groups because they lack the experience and employers may be risk averse,” says Ms. Shoesmith of the REC.

Image descriptionYounger workers still face higher unemployment rates than the general population

IES ‘Wilson says more young people in full-time education have stopped keeping jobs 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 jobs during the pandemic: “A third of young people who are now in high-skilled work were in medium or low-skilled jobs a year earlier.”

And younger workers are more cautious about customer-facing roles than they used to be, says Wilson. “You do not want to expose yourself to the risk of contracting Covid. You are not vaccinated.”

Are other industries particularly under pressure?

According to Ms. Shoesmith at REC, the freight forwarding industry is suffering from a shortage of drivers. “There were large numbers of people from Romania and Bulgaria taking on driver jobs,” she told the BBC.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionKeeping the trucks moving in the UK is difficult as the economy opens up

They stayed in the UK after the Brexit referendum but started when the pandemic broke out. “They have either found work in their home countries or they feel it is wrong to return to the UK, either because of Brexit or the pandemic.”

Ms. Shoesmith says there are an estimated 30,000 large truck drivers in the UK.

What about foreign workers in general?

It appears that many EU citizens who have worked in the UK have returned home. UKHospitality’s Ms. Nicholls said 1.3 million foreign workers left the UK during the pandemic.

“It destroyed a large part of the economy, and it affects the entire economy,” she says.

Image rightsReutersImage descriptionWarehouse staff is in great demand

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

“With these quarantine agreements, many people who have the right to work here do not accept them. If you are in Spain or Poland, you are not coming to the UK to take jobs, ”he says.

However, he warns that international job search websites like Adzuna have seen a “massive slump” in the number of foreign workers looking for a job in the UK.

“There is currently an acute problem in some industries, but Brexit could make it chronic in the long term,” he adds.

Other factors affecting the labor market

The government’s vacation program has helped millions of people keep their jobs. But there are unintended consequences, says Ms. Shoesmith of the REC.

“With government support going through the end of September, there is a risk that if people come back from vacation and there is another lockdown, they will not be able to return. You have to start over, ”she says.

As a result, some people who are approached about job offers are reluctant to take their vacation to take them, she says.

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

“If the pandemic leads to structural change in the economy, with less demand for the high street and more for e-commerce, then the vacation could delay that shift,” Ms. Xu said.

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

Mr. Wilson of IES believes that in the future companies will have to pay more attention to how they hire, train and treat employees.

“When companies say, ‘We can’t get the people,’ they mean, ‘We can’t get the experienced people,'” he says.

But with unemployment still at 1.7 million, there is a “large labor pool” of people who could take these jobs, he adds.

This means taking on and training less experienced staff, but also offering more support to people with health problems or care responsibilities.

“It’s not necessarily about payment, but about offering better conditions,” he adds. “Employers haven’t had to do that for a decade.”


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