Does our current jobs market represent a perfect storm? And why are we keeping this a secret?

We all work in an industry that is easy to criticise and easy to overlook. It may be a £6bn business, however too often it slips under the radar. Too many stakeholders – both within and without our industry – have just a passing grasp of our industry, even to the extent of taking it for granted – even people who should, in theory, know a lot about it, who influence what we do and how we go about it. 

The current general election has seen employment and the jobs market discussed openly by all political parties. What stands out – in clear and often sobering detail – is the either wilful or accidental lack of insight and knowledge they have of our jobs market. Many of the people who have such an influence and an impact on the jobs market have never done a formal job in their life. There is a sense of detachment in many politicians about our industry. There is an outdated view across for politicians that employers and employees have an entirely adversarial, parent child relationship. They remain unaware of the many changes that have impacted the workforce.

They have little notion of part time work, of the gig economy – their natural assumption is of those people being abused by employers. Much policy formulation happens from this basic misunderstanding of the dynamics of today’s labour market. 

And yet, is there a sense that we as an industry are just as culpable? We work within a sector that has much going for it and which has done much to support the UK economy, UK organisations and UK families. But do we do enough to make such a point? Are we, as an industry too apologetic?

Consider flexibility. For 8.5m people – predominantly women – flexibility is a key element of their working week. Indeed, conversations with a wide range of sectors and working demographics tend to point to a desire for greater working flexibility as a key and rare common factor. In just the last decade, flexibility has emerged as a significant driver and motivator for employees, regardless of age, gender and industry. That we as an industry are able to facilitate this to a greater and greater extent should, again, be something to praise. Instead, flexibility is kicked around like a political football.

The same challenge surrounds the self-employed. Political rhetoric insists that these are people forced reluctantly out of employment and who have little option but to eke out a living through working for themselves. The latest figures suggest there are very nearly 5m of these people across the UK force, or 15% of everyone in employment, up 125,000 from a year previously. 

Indeed, the notion that employees have choice within the workplace is a fundamental – and recent – driver for workforce dynamics. And a factor of which politicians, for example, appear unaware. This sense of choice is driven by the strength of the labour market, with unemployment being as low as it has ever been since 1974. People within the labour market have an increasingly equal relationship with employers. Greater confidence has driven a desire to have work fit in to other demands and responsibilities. To work when this suits the individual as much as the employer. 

This is why messaging driven by EVPs is increasingly important. Such messaging has to factor in both that candidates have choice and that these choices also include the desire to work flexibly and the desire to work on a self-employed basis. If our recruitment messaging does not present a compelling reason as to why candidates should choose a particular employer, then we shouldn’t be overly surprised when they make other choices. 

This will come as no surprise to the talent acquisition world, but our task is to better inform and educate internal stakeholders – business leaders, hiring managers – and external influencers – politicians. If we fail in this, then we risk budgets being kept low and expectations kept unfeasibly high.

As an industry, there is much to look back on with a real sense of achievement. Since 2010, the private sector has created 3.7m jobs. We have record employment in the country and the second-highest labour participation – at 76% – in the world.

We probably do not recognise how good we are as a country at creating work. And if we do, then we seem reluctant to articulate this. 

We have around 1.5m unemployed. If we deduct from this number those who have effectively distanced themselves from the labour market, this figure then halves. If we compare the figure of people who want to enter the labour market to the number of live vacancies – a little over 800,000, then we have effective full employment. This feels an important achievement. Again, not one we hear articulated. 

The better we are able to explain the strength of the labour market, how much it has firmed over the last decade and what this means from a competitive context to talent acquisition, the less likely we will feel taken for granted and under-estimated as an industry. 

We have a labour market of, generally, choice and opportunity. It could not be different from that of, say, thirty years ago. Whereas some countries might celebrate this, our industry is treated with suspicion. 

We have achieved much in terms of getting people into work, providing them with a purpose, providing them with the means of supporting themselves and their families. 

However, whilst this has any number of benefits for employees, it does provide a series of challenges for employers – those organisations needing to hire in the tightest labour market any of us have known. 

Universum suggest that the current labour market is weighted 92% in favour of the employee over the employer. This is indicative of rising wages, greater employee confidence and a sense that the employee has a choice. Talent acquisition professionals also realise that this represents a paradigm shift in the labour market. And a shift that they need to both understand and communicate. 

Today’s labour markets require more ingenuity, more nimbleness, more insight as well as more realisation that such a shift has actually taken place. It can be all too easy for leaders who have only known the inside of their own organisation not to grasp the shifting external landscape. 

Whilst we need, as an industry, to work hard to address this problem, we also need to work equally hard articulating that such a problem does indeed exist.