'What might have been', UK employment at record high before lockdown

“There is a sense of what might have been” says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder of Flexa, a job platform for flexible working, reacting to the UK experiencing record high employment during December 2019 and February 2020, before the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that 76.6 per cent of people aged 16 to 64 were part of the working population. This figure is 0.4 percentage points higher than the previous year and 0.2 percentage points higher than the previous quarter.

Ms Johnson-Jones said:

There is a sense of ‘what might have been’ with these labour statistics, which boast of a record high 76.6 per cent employment rate that is simply unimaginable now.

We are living in a changed world, and this data is a historic relic that bears no comparison with our new reality. While we enter this crisis in a strong position, there is no indication yet of how bad things will get.

Upcoming labour market releases will introduce a new term, ‘furloughed’. Millions of people will be in this limbo – employed and salaried, but unsure of when they might return to work and whether there will be a job to return to.

Applications to fund the wages for one million workers were received by the Government yesterday. Until the labour statistics reflect this new form of employment, the picture this labour market data paints will be only a distant memory of times before corona.

The figures state that there were 33.07 million people in employment, which is 352,000 more than the previous year.

In early March there was a small drop in the number of paid employees compared to February, a drop of 0.06 per cent.

Matt Weston, managing director, Robert Half UK believes the virus has brought new opportunities for certain sectors.

Mr Weston said:

While COVID-19 will have an impact on the recent record levels of employment seen in the UK, companies are already innovating to adapt their business models to the new environment. Though there may be fewer jobs available for some time, we will see entrepreneurial businesses bring new opportunities for employees from this period of change.

There is already strong demand across industries including healthcare, manufacturing, FMCG and IT services, for roles within technology, accounting and finance, and HR and administrative support. What’s more, although more people will likely compete for the same jobs over the coming weeks, there will also be an increase in demand for temporary, short term resources which may lead to a shift in working patterns and greater flexibility going forward.

Nonetheless, the process of finding and securing a job – both during and following the COVID-19 crisis – will inevitably change as businesses adapt their recruitment cycles in the immediate term.

Tom Hadley, director of policy at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) believes the UK job market will bounce back once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

Mr Hadley said:

Everything has changed since these statistics were collected. The inevitable impact of Covid-19 on the UK Labour market can be seen in the REC’s Report on Jobs which shows the quickest drop in permanent and temporary staff placements since the global financial crash. The decline is particularly steep in sectors like retail, hospitality and construction. Demand in sectors like logistics and healthcare on the other hand have peaked and the recruitment industry is working with government and other bodies to place staff into key worker roles quickly and help the country through the coronavirus crisis.

What today’s ONS figures do show is that the fundamentals of our jobs market are sound. This will help us to bounce back post-crisis. How quickly this happens depends on the steps government takes now to protect businesses. The package of support on offer is considerable but it needs to be accessible to businesses quickly to manage the cashflow crisis and protect jobs.