Recruitment, along with many other sectors of the economy, got off to a sluggish start in the New Year as we dug out our crystal balls and tried to make sense of our third national lockdown in nine months. Fortunately, as the UK's vaccination programme began to gather momentum and the media headlines turned to messages of hope and optimism, employers started to look to the year ahead with renewed energy and resolve.
This was reflected in recruitment market activity in late January when enquiries from employers looking for immediate temporary support as well as those considering longer-term permanent appointments started to pick up. While enquiries are still significantly below the levels we saw during the same period last year before the pandemic struck, they are rising week on week, with the first quarter of 2021 looking increasingly busy. This signals to us that businesses are actively preparing for the end of lockdown and starting to look afresh at their offerings and the people they need to deliver them.
National reports suggest a slow and steady recovery in the number of job vacancies coming to the market, with different regions painting their own local pictures. Here in Oxfordshire, we are optimistic that job opportunities will continue to increase, with our Healthcare, Pharma, Publishing and Science and Technology industries leading the way. London remains sluggish although we have been tasked with filling a few vacancies in the City recently which is encouraging.
The availability of quality candidates in Oxfordshire
As most of us have read, unemployment remains high, affecting around 5% of the UK population. There were a record number of redundancies in 2020 and there are fears that we will see another spike if the furlough scheme ends on 30 April as it is currently predicted to do. More affluent areas, including London and the South East, are among those hardest hit with the highest numbers of redundancies.
Against this backdrop, we have seen a marked increase in the number of candidates that have applied to register with us over the last nine months. One of the things that sets us apart as a recruitment agency is the fact that we conduct in-depth interviews with every candidate that we register, which gives us a good insight into the individual behind each CV. This has enabled us to build a strong database of quality candidates for roles at all levels within PA and Administration, Marketing, HR and Finance. It also gives us a real advantage when it comes to matching candidates to roles, teams and cultures.
Contrary to what some employers may think and in spite of high unemployment and rising redundancies, the candidate market is complex. While parts of the UK economy have been decimated, some have thrived and others look set to bounce back extremely quickly. Despite a shortage of job vacancies overall, the war for talent in high growth sectors and for specialist roles remains fierce.
Employers and their HR teams are being advised to take the time to understand the nuances of the market and identify the roles that are pivotal to their business success. This will enable them to work out how much their top talent is worth to them and what they need to put in place to attract and retain those key individuals.
While it is true that there are more people looking for work than at any time over the last decade, it is too simplistic to say that it is an employer's market and that recruitment for all roles at all levels is easy. Employers that don't get to grips with this risk losing out on the best candidates when it comes to recruiting for the roles that really matter.
Trends for employers and HR professionals to look out for
The Office for National Statistics' unemployment figures make it clear that it will take a while for the labour market to recover from Covid and as things currently stand, no-one can say with any certainty what that recovery will look like or how long it will take.
However, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation's Jobs Recovery Tracker measured 1.77 million job ads in December – a record for 2020 and an encouraging sign that the market is starting to pick up again. While one month is not significant in itself, we have seen increasing numbers of vacancies in Oxfordshire in January and February, in spite of lockdown. This is a real indicator of confidence returning to the market – and not just in the industry sectors that have been immune or grown as a result of Covid.
Our experiences are backed up by workforce intelligence and labour market analytics firm Emsi whose data shows that the UK's third lockdown is having less of an impact on hiring activity than in 2020. With the Brexit deal now done, the new points-based immigration system in place and the widespread vaccine roll-out, many sectors are forging ahead and the rise in recruitment marketing activity reflects this. Those organisations that trade with Europe and internationally will no doubt be affected by the success of those countries' vaccination programmes, infection rates, rules and regulations, and may not recover as quickly.
Emsi workforce intelligence reveals that the sectors continuing to lead the way in Oxfordshire are Scientific Research & Development, Publishing, Manufacturing and Construction. In Oxford itself, Healthcare and Education also dominate.
We are receiving enquiries from employers in these sectors as well as others, so from our point of view, recruitment activity is fairly widely and evenly spread.
Temps are still fuelling the recovery
The greatest demand is still for temporary workers. According to Emsi, there has been a year-on-year increase in demand for temporary and contract roles – up 26% compared to this time last year.
This is perhaps unsurprising given that this was how many employers resourced their growth coming out of the last recession. However, what is different about this pandemic is that a large proportion of the workforce is working from home. This means that some employers may be holding back, concerned that the challenges of onboarding temps remotely may outweigh the benefits.
Fortunately our temps have proven themselves to be remarkably resourceful and have managed to hit the ground running and add value from day one. This is largely due to experience and a growing familiarity with remote working practices. We've noticed that once employers have taken on one or more temporary workers, they continue to do so, recognising that this is a cost-effective and flexible solution. Often these temp roles lead to permanent ones.
Our experiences in Oxfordshire reflect the national picture. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation's Report on Jobs published in January shows that temporary work is continuing to drive the UK's recovery and notes that billings have risen for the sixth month in a row.
Demand for specialists in permanent roles
In addition to rising demand for temporary workers, we are starting to see an increase in the number of permanent vacancies in Oxford as well as in the market towns and on the science parks. These tend to be for more specialist roles with Payroll and Digital Marketing currently in high demand. This undoubtedly reflects the times we find ourselves in, with payroll experience needed to deal with the furlough scheme, sickness, flexible working arrangements and other factors affecting staff pay – and digital marketing expertise required to support much-needed lead generation and sales activities which will be so important to businesses as they look to market their way out of the pandemic and achieve their goals.
The most common occupations in Oxfordshire are Teaching and Educational Professionals; Science, Research, Engineering & Technology Professionals; Culture, Media and Sports occupations; Skilled Construction and Building Trades. In Oxford, there are also significant numbers of Healthcare Professionals. Candidates with these skills will always be sought-after as will the large numbers of support staff that underpin these sectors.
When it comes to softer skills, including capabilities and behaviours, the qualities that employers are looking for in candidates are changing. The ability to work well remotely has become increasingly important and the following attributes are now widely sought after: flexibility; being able to adapt to changing circumstances quickly and easily; the ability to communicate well at all levels; a track record in managing and motivating dispersed teams; and working collaboratively in a remote environment.
Where to from here?
We will undoubtedly face many challenges over the months ahead but it is reassuring to see real signs of confidence and positivity returning to the market. A willingness to invest in people and jobs lies at the heart of this.
Our recruitment industry body, the REC, has called on the Government to help businesses to retain workers and create new jobs. Measures include a reform of the apprenticeship levy to boost skills; reduction in the cost of furlough; deferment of 2020 VAT repayments and reduction in the employers National Insurance payments.
We will continue to play our part in helping our candidates to develop the hard and soft skills that employers need as they look ahead to 2021 and beyond, while helping our clients to identify the best people to meet their specific requirements and to grow their businesses in a sustainable way.
If you would like any recruitment advice or information about the Oxfordshire and London jobs markets, or help with your next temporary or permanent hire, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Kate Allen
Kate is the founder and Managing Director of Allen Associates. Read Kate's bio and meet the rest of the team, here.