The current easing of Covid restrictions, the imminent relaxation of social distancing rules and the reopening of various business sectors has meant demand for workers rose at its fastest rate in May for more than 23 years, according to a recently published KPMG survey.

Whilst this all sounds encouraging, hundreds of firms cannot fill job vacancies as the number of staff available to fill those jobs declined at the quickest rate since 2017. KPMG recently called on the government and firms to address the issue, caused by a lack of necessary skills and exacerbated by the gaps left by EU workers who have returned home because of Brexit and the pandemic.

Workers are especially needed in IT and computing, which has been a long-term trend, as well as hospitality. Hospitality venues are struggling to fill thousands of job vacancies with waiting staff and chefs in particular demand. Many hospitality firms have struggled during the pandemic despite government support, and staff have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced.

The jobs market “seems to be firing on all cylinders” said KPMG partner Claire Warnes, ‘‘but the deterioration in staff supply intensified this month… which is a worrying trend,” she added. She called for government and firms to “urgently address the skills gap”. Kate Shoesmith, Deputy Chief Executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), said:

“With demand spiking, the skills and labour shortages that already existed in the UK have come into sharper focus – and Covid has only made them worse. This is the most pressing issue in the jobs market right now and has the potential to slow down the recovery.”

A government spokesperson said: “Our multi-billion-pound plan for jobs, including the Kickstart scheme, is supporting employers across the country to create jobs and help job-seekers get the skills and experience needed to develop their careers and fulfil roles for years to come. Additionally, we have increased the apprenticeship hiring incentive to £3,000 per new apprentice hire and our lifetime skills guarantee – worth the equivalent of around £3,400 per person – ensures all adults can gain new skills and qualification.’’

Whilst initiatives such as these are to be welcomed, it is questionable as to how quickly this will affect the current situation. There is little doubt that the sharp decline in EU workers has also fuelled the sharp decline in labour shortages. Recruitment websites, which are tracked by government officials for early warning signs from the labour market, found the number of overseas job searches from western Europe and North America had halved – a decline of about 250,000 – since February 2020, just before Covid-19 spread to the UK. Workers who returned to the EU during lockdown are now confronted with post-Brexit UK Visa rules and minimum income thresholds, not to mention quarantine and costly Covid-19 requirements.

This is being led by a decline in overseas interest in typically lower-paid service-led sectors, while some towns and cities have up to 20 jobs on offer per jobseeker. A recent article in the Sunday Times explained that Lake District businesses, for example, who are currently enjoying an unprecedented influx of tourists unable to fly overseas, have been confounded by staff shortages. Many hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions have been forced to scale back their services or shut down altogether. There are also currently 68 vacancies for chefs in hotels and restaurants alone, according to Ben Mayou, Chairman of the Lake District Hotels Association. Overall, his members are short of 270 staff, with 50 more needed for the summer season.

Gerwyn Davies, a senior labour market adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said:

“New limits to the supply of unskilled migrant labour and the switch to new ways of working presents many employers with an incentive to review job quality.”

He said firms ought to respond to the “emerging threat of recruitment difficulties” by improving their employment conditions, such as training opportunities and the right balance of flexibility and security.

“By offering better-quality jobs, employers will be in a better position to attract and retain the staff they need, particularly in sectors that have traditionally relied on EU workers, the supply of which has fallen sharply,” he said.

This is to be welcomed. However, it will also require everyone concerned about the state of careers advice in this country to help young people to discover the benefits to be gained from discovering new career opportunities. Whilst we need better training and an improvement in apprenticeship quality, young people exploring the job market for the first time will need direction and clarity of information if the country is to flourish in a post-Covid future.