Job vacancies hit all-time high of almost one million, official figures show

But economists and recruiters warn there is no time for complacency as record vacancies could indicate a skills mismatch

Job vacancies are at a record high, the latest official figures have revealed, as an estimated 953,000 vacancies appeared in May to July 2021. 

According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), job vacancies increased by 290,000 compared with the previous quarter and surpassed the number of vacancies before the pandemic (January-March 2020) by 168,000. 

The number of people in employment also rose to 28.9 million in July, but remained 201,000 below pre-pandemic levels, and the unemployment rate from April to June 2021 fell to 4.7 per cent, down from 4.8 per cent the month before.

The ONS report said that since the pandemic, the employment rate has generally decreased while the unemployment rate increased, but “both have shown signs of recovery”. 

The figures also show a growth of 8.8 per cent in average total pay including bonuses, while growth in average pay excluding bonuses was 7.4 per cent. However, the ONS cautioned that pay was affected by “temporary factors” such as a drop in the number of lower-paid employee jobs, which caused an increase in average earnings. 

Jonathan Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, said that recruitment and retention are picking up the slack as vacancies are in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. 

“Industries with the biggest surge in vacancies are the ones that used furlough the most, including arts and entertainment, and hospitality,” Boys said, adding that employers should pay attention to retention and recruitment strategies because “upskilling existing staff and improving people management will help keep current staff invested and engaged in the organisation”.

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Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation said the figures were a clear and encouraging sign that economic recovery is continuing, but urged that policymakers prepare for the end of government support. 

“While this is cause for optimism, policymakers must not become complacent about the recovery. With the furlough scheme ending at the end of next month, the UK jobs market is not yet in the clear,” he said. 

“Back-to-work schemes targeting workers of all ages must remain a priority for the government – as should the provision of adequate income support for those who will find themselves struggling financially this autumn and beyond.”

Rosalind Lowe, head of policy and engagement at National Centre for Universities and Business, also warned against complacency as the furlough scheme comes to an end and cautioned against the record-breaking vacancy level. 

“There are a disproportionately large number of vacancies,” she said, adding that this was cause for “serious concerns” that the labour market was “witnessing a skills mismatch”.

The figures have also raised concerns about the skills gap for those in recruitment. Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, pointed out the rise in vacancies emphasises the “risk” posed by labour shortages in many key sectors. 

"The number of vacancies is now at an all-time high and is still rising, with employers desperate to hire new staff as the economy recovers. The increase in temporary workers again emphasises the vital role this type of engagement plays in helping firms stay productive when skills are scarce,” he said, adding that the shortages predate the pandemic and will not fade away, so employers were seeking advice from recruiters. 

"They will also need help from the government to solve this issue. That means an effective, long-term plan on skills and training, and an immigration system that has the flexibility to meet employers' needs,” Carberry added. 

But the outlook is not entirely negative. A separate ONS business survey conducted in late July found that only 1.5 per cent of employees were still on furlough, with 2.2 per cent on partial furlough. 

Jack Kennedy, UK economist at Indeed, described the combination of today’s figures with the business survey as an encouraging “straight-A labour market report”, which showed that businesses were taking the gradual winding down of furlough “in their stride”. 

“So far there’s no sign that the withdrawal of the furlough safety net is leading people to lose their jobs. In fact, the redundancy rate fell during the past quarter and is now back to its pre-pandemic level,” said Kennedy, adding that fears of furlough ending in September are subsiding. 

“While bottlenecks in some sectors are forcing some businesses to raise wages in order to attract the staff they need, overall this is a strong set of numbers and the clearest sign yet that the labour market is on course to snap back to normality after a tempestuous 18 months,” he added.