There have been a lot of reports around about skills shortages recently. One out this week was a report from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation which notes a fall in hiring for permanent posts due in large part to a decrease in the number of candidates available. Employers are looking to hire, but they can’t find the staff. The REC attributes this to falling unemployment and employees’ reluctance to move jobs in uncertain times, but the main issue is a lack of candidates with the right skills. REC Chief Executive Kevin Green speaks of candidate availability being “at a 16-month low” and says “recruiters are flagging a shortage of suitable applicants for more than 60 different roles from cleaner to accountant”.
Sectors with high demand include Engineering, IT & Computing and Nursing/Medical/Care. Given Brexit is likely to make the skills shortage worse and that it will take time to train up people with the right skills, what can employers do? Well, there may be a solution right in front of their eyes. Many women are currently out of the work force due to high childcare costs, difficulty getting back to work after a career break, lack of suitable flexible working or other reasons. A lot of them are highly skilled and experienced. That’s why returner initiatives have been growing in popularity among the more forward-thinking employers, although we are still in the relatively early days and we need more data to show that they work and if they work, what works best. An initiative needn’t be complicated or too costly and it’s not just for the big corporates. Some SMEs have been advertising supported returner roles, for instance, where people gradually increase their hours and get mentorship to help them build their confidence as they return to the workplace.
Flexible or agile working is also crucial. There’s no point being encouraged back to work if employees find themselves in the same position that led many to leave in the first place – rigid, often overly long hours combined often with long commutes.
A key issue, though, is childcare. There needs to be in the infrastructure in place to support returners. Let’s wait and see what all the political parties have to offer in this area – including holiday and after school childcare – but is there something more employers could do? London’s mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched a policy of paying upfront nursery registration fees for employees of Greater London Authority organisations. Upfront fees are often the first childcare hurdle to overcome and tax-free childcare, coming in later this year, relies on people being able to pay upfront in general and claw back some of the money afterwards.
It’s certainly something to think about. The alternative to the skills shortage is if the pendulum swings, post Brexit, towards greater levels of unemployment. If that happens, it is likely women will be hit hard, given the levels of discrimination routinely reported, for instance, against pregnant women and mums and given years of cuts to the welfare safety net. That will require a concerted effort to create more jobs, good jobs with long-term prospects.
For now we face a growing skills shortage and it is the time to make the case loudly for all those policies that help women get into, stay, return to and progress in the workplace.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.