Is there hope at last for UK staff shortages?

The upturn in demand for workers and people seeking to move from their existing roles is creating numerous challenges for hirers, says Paul Farrer

Businesses are facing the biggest staff shortages in living memory. The 1.1m job vacancies in the UK tell you everything you need to know about the recruitment challenges employers are experiencing. 

Two factors have created this perfect storm. There has been an upturn in the demand for workers at a time when workers themselves are seeking a move from their existing roles. It’s a double edged sword.

Firms have ramped up their hiring to replace staff who have moved on or were let go in the pandemic and equip themselves with the personnel they need to grow. For employees, the historic demand for workers is welcome news after a torrid 18 months. But for hiring organisations, these vacancies signal a trend which can lead to staff shortages so severe that businesses and sectors can’t function. 

The shortages we’re witnessing are caused by a combination of factors. 

Firstly, there have been higher levels of staff turnover, with those who would have been seeking to move jobs in 2020 and early 2021 making the move en masse in the knowledge there are plenty of opportunities. 

Then, over 200,000 European workers who returned to their country of origin at the start of the pandemic, are yet to return. This hasn’t been helped by the lack of trainees taken on by firms in the past 18 months, which has also removed a layer of employees. 

And we mustn’t forget that many people have also changed careers completely, having reflected on things during Covid-19 – only time will tell as to how many have taken a different path.

We know much of this is true from the staff shortages in care homes, in the NHS, logistics and the hospitality industry. Many blame Brexit, of course, but with 5.5m EU citizens applying for and receiving EU settlement status, it’s more complex than that. So is there any hope for employers frantically searching for the candidates?

Two in three workers open to new roles 

Aspire research suggests that two in three workers operating in marketing, sales, technology and events are either open to a new role or actively looking for one. On one hand this offers hope for hiring businesses – it means that employees are obtainable. On the other, it poses a potential problem to businesses, many of whom are already experiencing staff shortages. It’s a catch 22.

Employers mustn't neglect their existing staff as they look to hire new workers. Make this mistake and they may find themselves taking one step forward in recruiting new employees, only to be left short-staffed as existing workers move on. 

So how do businesses attract the right talent? And to avoid a catch 22, what can firms do to convince existing employees to stay put? We explored this as part of our research, which revealed the job aspects that matter most to workers. 


Salary came out top, perhaps unsurprisingly, as this is often seen as the most important aspect of a job. The pandemic led to people who would have otherwise changed jobs stay put, which is why in 2021 we’re seeing two years’ worth of employees seeking change after having had promotions and salary increases placed on hold. 

Flexible working

Flexibility – whether remote working or flexible hours – is a prerequisite for jobs nowadays, should the role allow for it. Many employers have embraced hybrid working, which requires ensuring staff have the right technology, home office equipment and are offered team building exercises and even counselling, to manage potential mental health related issues. 

But there’s much more to hybrid working than simply working from home, which doesn’t suit everyone. Shared local workspaces, for example, offer a cost-effective, collaborative and proven solution. 

Progression and personal development

Staff come and go, it’s a fact of life. However, offering a clear progression path and helping people develop – even if it sees a worker move on from a business in due course – could hold the key to attracting them initially. Training, opportunities to become better qualified and earn promotions are paramount. 

A challenging role 

Many people want to be stimulated, challenged and work on interesting projects. Businesses that are able to offer this are well placed to hire and keep hold of the talent they need. 

Diversity and inclusion

Employee requirements are rapidly evolving and businesses must respond to changes in society, whether that’s Black Lives Matter or the Me Too movement. Employers with robust and far-sighted diversity and inclusion policies will benefit greatly in attracting and retaining talent. Research from 2019 showed that 54 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men check a firm’s D&I policy before joining; I expect that figure has now increased dramatically.

There’s a lot for hiring businesses to take on board and even implement from this, and there’s no denying that the recruitment landscape is more competitive than ever. With the OBR predicting further GDP growth of 6 per cent in 2022, this is set to continue. However, by focusing on what really matters to workers, employers have every chance of coming out on top in the war for talent. 

Paul Farrer is the founder of recruitment firm Aspire