Addressing the skills shortage crisis
The UK is currently experiencing one of the most significant shortages in skills for a generation, restricting productivity and hampering recovery for businesses that are still struggling to regain pre-pandemic output levels.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released figures showing that there are around 1.1 million unfilled job vacancies. This presents a serious problem for the economy and will hamper the ability of many businesses to increase production or even fulfil current orders for their products and services. Some are having to scale down their business in order to survive.
At the same time, there are around 15 million people in England alone, living with one or more long-term health conditions. Around 12.5 million of these are of working age, and more than half of these are currently not in employment. That’s a lot of skills and talent going to waste.
Of course, some of these individuals are not able to work, or do not want to. But for many, receiving a diagnosis of a serious illness, managing a chronic health condition or living with another physically restricting condition, is not an automatic barrier to wanting to work. On the contrary, many are desperate for a role that gives them a sense of purpose, routine, direction and a chance to do something that takes their mind off their illness, while making a useful contribution to society and the world of work. For some, the income is important too, while others are just as happy to take roles in a voluntary capacity.
My brother David set up Astriid, a registered charity that connects people with chronic illness to employment opportunities, when he was given a cancer diagnosis at the age of 50. He had a very successful career as a Commander in the Royal Navy and was a decorated Marine Engineer. Suddenly he was facing unemployment and an apparent lack of opportunities. It felt like such a waste. He wanted to continue to use his impressive skillset and fill his time being productive and valued.
Our role is to help candidates identify their transferable skills and their passion, help them prepare for work with support in writing a CV and interview skills, and connect them with the right employers who can offer them meaningful employment. In our database of around 1,400 candidates, two-thirds are qualified at degree level or higher. They represent a massively competent and highly-skilled community of jobseekers.
For many employers, there is a stark choice to be made if a successful and productive member of staff, or a manager or senior leader, becomes ill. The cost of replacing that person can be very high, and there is no guarantee of finding someone else with the same experience and skills. It makes a lot of sense in this instance to take a flexible approach and discuss how they might support that person to continue in their role with for example, reduced hours, or flexible working times, increased admin support, or working from home. The pandemic has already taught us that all of these scenarios can be made to work very effectively.
Sadly, current government guidelines and the Equality Act stipulates that during an interview, employers may not ask about an individual’s health conditions, as this is seen to be discriminatory. I believe this is crazy and our own research tells us that in around 40% of cases, this conversation about health and ability to do the job does happen. It is crucial that during an interview, employer and candidate can openly discuss the adjustments that will be needed, in order for that candidate to deliver their best in the role. And the candidate also needs to see how open and willing the employer is to accommodate that. Getting it right from the start benefits both sides and helps to ensure a successful hire.
We help people with conditions including ME and other chronic fatigue conditions, MS, cancer, heart disease, long-Covid, people on the neuro-diverse spectrum and with disabilities. We also help find work for carers as there are around 8.8 million unpaid carers supporting relatives and friends in the UK. They have also had their career ambitions thwarted by illness, and although they can’t go into a workplace every day because of their caring responsibilities, many can, and want to work.
Employers need to take a flexible approach. Some carers for example might be free to do two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon and two more in the evening. There are lots of vacancies in customer service and call-centre roles that can be filled working flexible hours, and from home; it needs the sort of creative thinking for which our candidates are famous.
For any organisation focusing on their D&I approaches, my takeaways are:
- Take a good look at current employment practices and make sure they can be made as flexible as possible. The goal should be to make your workplace a great place to be, for everyone, including people with chronic illness and other conditions.
- Does the hiring policy make it easy for these people to apply? It is so much easier, for example, for someone with chronic fatigue or disability to attend a remote video interview than to travel to an unknown location. It gives them the opportunity to be at their best during the interview.
- Sign up to schemes such as Disability Confident, which currently has around 11,000 UK businesses, who are demonstrating the way forward as employers of choice.
- Work with charities like Astriid, and others that specialise in connecting diverse candidate groups with employers. We’re all easy to find on the internet.
- Get staff involved with volunteering, helping them to understand what it is to be a person with a long-term illness or disability. Help them to help your business be a better place to work for those individuals.
Organisations, such as Advanced that commit to increasing diversity by employing people with chronic conditions and disabilities will experience an uplift in morale, which can equate to an uplift in productivity. A happy and fulfilled workforce has been shown to be more productive, as well as being more innovative and creative. There is also an uplift in reputation – when customers and other future employees see that an organisation is flexible and open-minded and employs with diversity at the forefront, its reputation will benefit.
There is something so rewarding about helping someone turn their life around, from feeling like they have been consigned to the scrap heap, to gaining confidence, excelling in their job and experiencing the joy that brings. If businesses truly want to address the skills gap, they need to start actively looking at how to engage with the hidden talent pool that has so much to give.