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Why can’t some employers find workers?

Why Can’t Some Employers Find Workers?

As unemployment rates fall and foreign workers leave, companies are turning to unusual methods to fill a growing number of vacancies in the UK

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According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are 1.64 million unemployed people over the age of 16 in the UK right now, with a further 8.81 million economically inactive people (those out of employment but not actively seeking work). At the same time, many companies are complaining of a labour shortage. Why?

Though many people have struggled with job security during the pandemic, the unemployment rate in the UK – currently at 4.8% of the population – is going down. What has happened at the same time, however, is an evaporation of foreign workers as many EU citizens – an estimated 1.3 million – returned home after Brexit.

This has left some areas of the country with very low employment rates as well as a rush of recently vacated roles, meaning there are just not enough people seeking work to fill the number of jobs now available. This has led to some companies, including Tesco, Waitrose and John Lewis, offering increased wages or bonuses to tempt people to work in problem areas.   

For other companies, it is not a lack of workers but a lack of appropriately skilled workers that is the problem. For example, the Road Haulage Association has said Britain needs 100,000 more lorry drivers to meet demand, yet current applicants just don’t have the right skills and it estimates that it would take up to 18 months to train enough drivers to plug the gap. 

This has led to what the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is calling a labour crisis – one that it expects to last at least two years, as businesses wait for British workers to be sufficiently trained to fill the roles left open by European workers. 

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Industries facing severe shortages, as identified by the CBI, include butchers, bricklayers, welders and lorry drivers. The group is now lobbying the government for special exemptions that would allow skilled workers in these fields to come to the UK from overseas to fill the gaps until the UK closes its own skills gap. 

Though the skills shortages mean that some employers can’t find workers right now, there is a silver lining to this cloud as more attention is being placed on training UK workers rather than outsourcing labour. And with general employment dropping, companies are looking to groups that would have not previously have been targeted, including those serving prison time and asylum seekers.  

Bounce Back, a charity that helps ex-offenders return to the workforce, has reported an increase in demand from employers seeking to work with it. Some businesses – including builders merchant Lawsons – are offering to deliver training to prisoners while they serve time. This way, incarcerated persons’ time in prison will be spent productively and they will emerge fully trained and with employment waiting for them. 

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, meanwhile, is calling for more prisoners to be released on temporary licence in order to join the meat processing industry. There is also a call from the Scotland Food & Drink association for asylum seekers – who are not allowed to seek employment under current rules – to be allowed to take on jobs while waiting for their claims to be evaluated.

Though the UK is facing a temporary employment crisis, this disruption that has caused shortages and closures – including that famous moment when Nandos ran out of chicken –  could have a positive long-term impact. The British workforce, it would seem, is ready to skill up. 


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