Shropshire firms having to fight to find new staff

Businesses are facing a perfect storm as they grapple with a crisis in recruitment. Bosses in Shropshire today spoke of the struggle to find people with the right skills.

Graham Guest, Hollie Whittles and Richard Sheehan discuss the issues
Graham Guest, Hollie Whittles and Richard Sheehan discuss the issues

And they say Covid has changed attitudes, with many potential recruits not willing to get back into a 9-5 routine.

Hollie Whittles, of Telford-based Purple Frog Systems, declared the issue a “massive problem”.

She warned: “Businesses just can’t find the right staff with the right skills, in the right place at the right time.”

The issue was discussed at a recent forum, which also included college leaders who are tasked with giving young people the skills to help the Shropshire economy thrive.

Shropshire Chamber chief Richard Sheehan, says there had been a change in people’s “relationship to work” and that firms now had to be proactive to to persuade staff to commit to a new job.

He said the reduction in migrant staff had also had an impact on the overall pool of workers, especially in farming and tourism, adding: “It’s taken businesses a long time to realise that, actually, they have to sell themselves now because it is such a tight labour market.

Businesses battle to find workers they need to keep alive

It’s a tough time for many businesses. Of the issues they face, finding the right kind of staff is now among the biggest.

Brexit brought challenges as did negotiating a pandemic. And firms also face rising energy prices and a cost of living crisis.

Now, on top of all that, firms are wrestling with hiring challenges set to go into 2023 and beyond.

A recent Shropshire Chamber of Commerce survey revealed that 76 per cent of those businesses who responded are struggling to recruit. Another from the Federation of Small Businesses reinforced that – in fact 78 per cent said they were finding it hard to bring in new staff.

Richard Sheehan says people have a different attitude to work since Covid

Richard Sheehan, the chief executive officer of the Shropshire Chamber, says recruitment is now a “major issue” in the county and believes the pandemic has played a significant role in the recruitment challenge.

He says the whole ethos of recruitment has changed as a result of people being forced to work from home during lockdowns.

“The pandemic has changed people’s relationship with the work place in many cases,” he said. “There are a lot of vacancies that companies are struggling to fill simply because they can’t accommodate a work-from-home environment.

“The ‘working from home’ factor is something which has become a lot more important to a lot more people.

“It’s almost a reversal of the past. We are in a situation now where no longer do people apply for a job and it’s just about them having to sell themselves - businesses have to do the same.

“The pandemic has changed people’s whole attitude towards work and the work place."

He added: "The migrant labour issue has affected us here in Shropshire too especially with the sectors we have such as those surrounding agriculture, tourism, leisure and hospitality.

“They have been hit really hard by the loss of that labour, there’s no question, and we have been flagging that up for more than a year, and progress needs to happen.”

Company boss Hollie Whittles says businesses ‘cannot find the right staff with the right skills, in the right place at the right time’

Hollie Whittles, HR director at Telford-based Purple Frog Systems, is a leading figure in the Federation of Small Businesses and has also reflected on recruitment as a “massive problem”.

“From the discussions I am having in Shropshire, businesses just can’t find the right staff with the right skills, in the right place at the right time,” she said.

“We have an ageing population in the Marches. We are a rural area and businesses are being hit by all manner of rising costs, so recruitment on top of that is a massive problem.

“We have a never-before-seen situation where the number of job vacancies is higher than the number of people unemployed or looking to change career."

She added: “The pandemic led to new work practices and flexibilities, which many people are reluctant to leave behind. Many of those who are looking for work are holding out for much higher pay and much more flexible working arrangements.

“Many workers in traditionally lower pay, high-stress industries, have decided to change career altogether, creating even greater shortages in areas such as care, hospitality and retail.

“They are issues which would pose challenges to anyone looking to recruit new staff. With them all coming into play at the same time, the situation is becoming critical. I recently heard from Shropshire SMEs who have turned work away because they lack staff capacity to take anything else on. Others have run recruitment campaigns and had no applicants come forward.

“Some, principally in the IT sector, have had staff poached by larger corporate enterprises and then struggled to back fill the vacancies.”

Hollie says that, moving forward, a stronger relationship is needed between businesses and education in order to try to promote opportunities and careers.

“We found in our survey that only 17 per cent of businesses are engaging with schools and colleges,” Hollie said.

“Sometimes, instead of leaving it to the big businesses, we need to encourage smaller businesses to speak up and communicate.”

Graham Guest says firms must work closer with colleges in future

Graham Guest, principal of Telford College and skills champion of the Marches LEP, says that link between education and business is vital, moving forward.

“As a college, we have seen the challenges,” he said. “We recruit teaching staff but, with regards to other staff, it been a struggle so we feel everyone’s pain.

“What we are beginning to see is businesses with a long-term plan, looking to work with schools and colleges to create a pipeline of recruits and that’s really positive. With work experience and apprenticeships – there’s a plethora of opportunities for employers to get involved. There are lots of initiatives and hopefully business and education can work together to meet the challenges. The more businesses that engage the better.”

Looking ahead, Richard says there could be “an opportunity for businesses to bring back into the work place some of the economically inactive”.

“People may have decided through Covid and when they were in a situation where they were furloughed where they felt they could manage in a different way,” he said.

“They might have felt they had enough to get by and decided to stay at home and do other things.

“But inflationary pressures are now starting to get people to look slightly different now and they might think ‘this might not be as comfortable as I thought’.

“But, as I have said, people’s relationship with the work place has changed and, therefore, businesses need to find ways of working with them to make things happen.”

Despite the recruitment challenges, Hollie says there are ‘some grounds for cautious optimism’.

She says: “A large proportion of Shropshire business owners tell me that they think the sky-high aspirations of job seekers will settle over time, as work practices ‘normalise’ and more people return to more traditional patterns of employment.

“Also, if inflationary pressures ease, so too will job-seekers' pursuit of the highest salary over everything else.

“There are also many training and employment support schemes available now and coming soon, which should help to ensure that local businesses can access a broader pool of talent when strengthening and growing their operations.

“These changes can’t come soon enough for many of our embattled, small business owners in Shropshire.”

You can see more of the interview on Shropshire Business TV Live at https://vimeo.com/774804269

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