Britain has an unemployment problem, right? Well, yes, in the sense that unemployment is still well above 7%, higher than ideal. But the biggest problem in the UK labour market today isn’t joblessness, which is coming down fast, but the increasing number of jobs that employers are finding it difficult to fill because of a lack of talent. The skills shortage is so serious that it now threatens to damage the UK’s economic recovery.
Look at the figures just released by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, the Government’s skills agency. It interviewed more than 90,000 employers last year, who collectively reported they had 559,600 job vacancies – that’s 45% more than when this research was last conducted four years ago.
The most significant statistic of all from the UKCES is that the number of posts that stand empty because employers can’t find people with the right skills to fill them is now 124,800. That’s a 98% increase on four years ago.
To put that number into context, employers can’t find talented people to fill one in five of the job vacancies they have. And in some areas of the country, the problem is even more acute – in Scotland, the UKCES says skills shortages account for one in four of all vacancies.
Everyone wants to see unemployment come down, so in that sense the rising number of job vacancies is good news. It suggests the economy is now creating employment opportunities more quickly. Hopefully, in time, that will feed through to lower joblessness.
However, if employers can’t fill vacancies because there aren’t enough people with the right skills to go round, we have a problem. Those employers won’t be able to grow their businesses in the way they’d like – the result will be a much slower economic recovery.
Britain can’t afford to fail to capitalise on positive economic momentum simply because of a structural problem in the labour market. In a global marketplace, the opportunities employers in this country fail to exploit will be grabbed by international competitors.
So what is to be done about the UK’s skills shortage? There are no quick fixes – one problem is that our education system does not appear to producing sufficient numbers of people with the right skills for the jobs that need doing. The shortfall may also reflect a failure on the part of employers to provide high-quality training. Both these problems can be tackled only over the medium to long term.
In the meantime, employers will have to be more flexible and imaginative about their recruitment. They will have to accept, for example, that while it may not be possible to fill vacancies with full-time, permanent members of staff, there are other options – short-term contractors and freelancers, in particular, are well-placed to take the strain.
In many cases, highly-skilled people no longer want to take a conventional job with a single employer, preferring self-employment and project work. Employers will have to engage with this constituency.
That will require them to work more closely with new platforms that promise to disrupt the established recruitment industry. At MBA & Company, for example, we match the top 1% of professionals with employers needing their skills – for assignments ranging from two hours to two years. Sometimes these assignments even develop into permanent roles.
This is a new style of working that will feel uncomfortable for employers used to hiring in the traditional way. But employers that have embraced new technologies are reporting good results. And with skills shortages likely to continue as the recovery spreads throughout the economy, employers that don’t want to be left behind must learn to adapt.
By Daniel Callaghan, CEO and co-founder of digital talent marketplace MBA & Company