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Facing up to a recruitment crisis

By Viren Patel, Director – Business Development Unit, The Open University

It’s not often that the finer points of hiring staff make headline news. But recently we’ve seen an increasing number   of stories in the media, all pointing to the problems that some UK employers have been having in recruiting staff.

Whether it’s searching for individuals with specialist expertise as seen with the HGV driver or nursing shortage in England, finding enough people to work in specific sectors like agriculture and social care, or people looking to move jobs for better work-life balance, pay and conditions – recruitment has become a much more challenging task for many human resources departments in organisations of all sizes.

The combined forces of the pandemic and Brexit have introduced considerable uncertainty and pressures, not least when it comes to how organisations attract talent and support existing staff with training and development. UK unemployment levels are decreasing and employment rates are increasing, according to the latest ONS figures.

The challenges in recruitment are significant. The recent Business Barometer report from The Open University and Institute of Directors found that 63% of decision makers agree their organisation has found recruiting difficult as candidates didn’t have the required skills for the role. Almost a quarter (24%) believe that finding staff with the right skillsets remains the single biggest challenge facing organisations in the next five years.

And this is against a backdrop where employers are having to invest more and more in recruitment. Not only is it taking longer, but spending on recruitment is also rising with 29% of those taking part in our report saying they have spent more on recruitment than in the past with average spend per employer now at about £25,200 per year.

The report gives some insight into how this current recruitment crisis is playing out. We have seen that UK employers are facing the most difficulties when hiring specialist, entry level talent – more than two fifths (45%) of organisations struggle when recruiting for non-senior roles. So, while much time and attention can be given to executive search, in this instance it’s not about top talent and senior executive packages, but rather about the longer-term sustainability of staffing that creates the backbone of organisations.

Addressing this talent crisis is imperative for employers because, as our report found, organisations believe this skills gap will have a profound impact on how their businesses will grow. Proactively addressing this gap will be vital for ongoing success.

Looking ahead to the post-pandemic workplace, IT skills are hugely valued. Many businesses are now to some extent an IT business and the rapid acceleration of digital over the past two years means these skills are always going to be in demand. So, when decision-makers were asked which skills are likely to become more important over the next 12 months, IT skills (such as Zoom proficiency) came top at 37%, followed by technical/operational skills (34%), industry-specific skills (32%) and managerial skills such as decision-making (33%).

So, what can the HR function do to support their businesses through this crisis? One answer is to invest in training your current workforce, as a more sustainable way of addressing the skills gap. If recruitment is so challenging – and looks likely to remain so – then the obvious answer is to upskill and reskill existing staff so the required skills are built within the organisation, rather than imported from  a competitive market.

From entry level to specialists, forward-thinking employers are instigating talent management and training strategies to ensure future success over the next five years. And one core aspect of this should be taking on apprentices – or allowing people within the organisation to move onto apprenticeships to develop new learning and skills.

It’s not a surprise that this year more than half of employers believe apprenticeships and work-based learning will be critical to their long-term success, an increase from the previous year. The Business Barometer report found that despite the challenges associated with hiring entry level talent, more than half (56%) of businesses believe that apprenticeships and work-based learning are critical to their long-term success, an 8% increase from last year. Additionally, 96% of employers currently working with apprentices plan to maintain or increase the number of apprentices in their organisation – a ringing endorsement of the value of this type of training.

By supporting staff through apprenticeships, it is a win-win for organisations and individuals. The apprentices are gaining knowledge and skills to help develop their career progression and aspirations. Meanwhile, the business ensures talent remains and grows internally and the expertise within the organisation becomes more secure. Work-based learning means skills are current, can be applied immediately, and staff feel that their employers are investing in them as individuals.

Clearly strategies are needed to future-proof UK businesses operating in all sectors and HR and L&D are core to establishing and implementing these. When staff and managers feel under pressure because of shortages it has a significant impact on all aspects of work. More than half (56%) of employers believe unfilled vacancies overextend their workforce and that the skills shortage stifles their growth potential and may impact staff wellbeing.

Finally, flexibility has become both necessary and expected in so many organisations since the start of the pandemic and this will apply as much to learning and development to manage the recruitment crisis, as it does to day-to-day working life. Educational programmes – be they apprenticeships, degrees, leadership programmes, professional qualifications or more informal learning – will also need to be flexible. This is a challenge for HR and L&D leaders going forward – to stay ahead of the skills gap and ensure their organisations grow the skills they require in order to be successful.

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