Employees switching occupations and entire industries amid Covid upheaval, data shows

Experts call on employers to support individuals so they can transition to growth sectors and to prepare for applications from a wider range of candidates

The number of employees switching occupations is up on last year as a result of the impact of coronavirus on the economy, official data has revealed.

In the first half of this year, 6.1 per cent of employees changed occupations, compared to 5.7 per cent over the same period last year, according to research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). More than half (52.5 percent) of those who changed occupation also switched industries entirely. 

Of those who changed occupations, the most movement came from those who left associate professional and technical occupations (20.9 per cent), including scientific, teaching and administrative jobs, and those joining these professions (21.2 per cent). 

Despite this year’s occupational change figures being up on last year’s, the ONS described the rise as a ‘slight increase’. But it added that occupational switching was likely to become more prevalent as the government's job retention scheme wound down in October.

Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds Group, agreed the data hinted at a shift that would likely become much more pronounced in the coming months. She said there was a crucial role for employers in helping staff made redundant to transition to those sectors that were growing.

“While the increase is limited, it is interesting to see that just over half of those workers who switched occupations went into completely different sectors from their main industry – we expect that this a sign of what’s to come, in particular as the furlough scheme draws to a close,” she said. 

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“The one key takeaway from these figures is that, while unemployment is sadly still rising, numerous industries are currently experiencing growth, including digital, education and health and social care. We have an opportunity to support those most in need through this incredibly tough time by creating ‘skills bridges’ that allow people to identify their transferable skills and gain the reskilling needed to unlock a rewarding job in a new industry.”

Madeleine Gabriel, head of inclusive innovation at Nesta, stressed the importance of government support in helping employers and employees make these transitions: "I think we will continue to see a rise in the number of people switching occupations or even industries when the government’s job retention scheme ends,” she said. “It’s good for workers and the economy if people are in jobs that make good use of their skills, but bad for both if not. 

“Helping workers to identify their own skills and find new occupations requires not only funding from the government but trying out new approaches for improving services that match people with the right job for them."  

Josh Graff, UK country manager at LinkedIn, said the figures highlighted the fact that the UK was facing the toughest labour market in a generation. “LinkedIn’s latest data shows that, although hiring in the UK has been steadily improving since the steep decline we saw when lockdown measures were put in place, it’s still down on this time last year,” he said. “LinkedIn data also shows that competition for roles has increased three fold and that workers in the hardest-hit industries are looking to other sectors as they seek out new opportunities.” 

Jack Kennedy, UK economist at job site Indeed, said this all meant hiring organisations were currently being inundated with job applications from a much wider range of people than normal: “Our data shows jobseekers are having to cast their nets wider. Nearly three in 10 searches made on Indeed in the 12 months to the end of June did not specify a type of job – a 5 per cent increase on the pre-Covid level and a sign that people have become much more flexible in the work they will consider.” 

He added that many were dropping out of work altogether as a result of the crisis. “With entire sectors of the economy brought to a juddering halt by lockdown, for some workers it’s been less of a case of having to look for a new job, as looking for a whole new industry to work in,” he said. “But for others – especially older workers – it has meant dropping out of the workforce altogether. In the second quarter of the year, an additional 75,000 people became economically inactive, effectively disappearing from the labour market.”

The ONS figures also showed the number of self-employed people increased by 48,000 between January to March and April to June – and 81,000 compared to last year – to a record high of 253,000. This, the ONS stated, might be partly because workers were looking for more security, stability and autonomy amid the economic and job market uncertainty created by the pandemic. 

The statistics did not reflect all job moves, rather changes in occupation, which were grouped according to skill level and specialisation. Categories of occupation included managers, directors and senior officials; professional; associate professional and technical; admin and secretarial; skilled trades; caring and leisure; sales and customer service; process, plant and machine operatives; and elementary occupations.