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How businesses can do more to address Britain's skilled worker shortage

Sizable pools of talented workers can be found among disabled people, black & minority ethnic people, women and LGBT people. Too many firms are failing to tap into them 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Monday 26 June 2017 12:11 BST
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Candidates line up for a job interview
Candidates line up for a job interview (Rex)

Lloyds Bank’s Business In Britain survey showed a rise in business confidence, but firms also said that it is getting harder and harder for them to find the staff they need to capitalise on it.

The bank reported that while confidence was at an 18 month high, challenges in hiring were at a ten year high.

A staggering 52 per cent of respondents said they struggled to recruit skilled staff in the last six months.

It should be stated at this point that this is no cynical attempt by Lloyds to garner a bit of cheap publicity. The Business in Britain report is in its 25th year and is put together from the views of 1,500 companies, mostly small and medium sized enterprises that are (as we keep being told) the engines of growth. As such, its findings are worthy of note.

Now, regular readers won’t be surprised to see me using this as yet more evidence of just how stupid, and damaging, the current Government’s approach to immigration is.

Making EU residents feel unwelcome, and pandering to racists, will cause real, and lasting economic damage to this country. They've already started to vote with their feet, exacerbating the nation's yawning skills gap.

However, at the same time, it is also fair to ask whether businesses are doing enough to mitigate the problem themselves, and whether their approach to recruitment isn’t making the difficult situation they identify worse than it otherwise might be.

After all, we were talking about the skills gap before the EU referendum and it would likely have continued to cause problems even had David Cameron’s decision to call it not resulted in an outbreak of collective insanity.

Part of the reason why it continues to be an issue is that businesses are failing to exploit the talent that is under their noses.

For example, I constantly highlight the disability employment gap within these pages. Despite the labour shortages Lloyds references, skilled disabled people can’t find jobs.

According to disability charity Scope, the difference between the rate of employment among able bodied people when compared to that of disabled people currently stands at a staggering 31.3 percentage points.

Some 90 per cent of disabled people have had jobs at one time or another but just 49.3 per cent are currently in employment. A survey by Scope also found that over half the respondents felt at risk of losing their jobs, one in five went as far as hiding their disabilities, one in eight said they were overlooked for promotion.

But it isn’t just disabled people. Unemployment is also markedly higher among black and minority ethnic people, about twice the rate found among white Britons in fact.

Last year, I revealed the results of a TUC study that found that the disparity in incomes between BAME workers and their white workers actually increases the more qualifications they get.

Meanwhile, we constantly see reports highlighting poor treatment of female staff, and of LGBT staff.

What all this indicates is that UK businesses are failing to tap into some substantial pools of talented and skilled workers, failing to make the best of the workers from them when that they do hire them, failing to treat them well.

Part of the problem might be being caused by recruitment agencies. Many firms use them, and they may sub consciously, or even deliberately, exclude certain candidates from shortlists to minimise what they misguidedly perceive as "risk", all with the aim of keeping their clients happy.

More research would be worthwhile, however, I can say that anecdotally I’ve hard a number of disturbing reports from disabled people concerning their dealings with these organisations.

Perhaps firms need to look beyond the debatable benefits of using them.

But that should be just the start of it because, with Brexit looming, the skills gap is only going to get wider. While businesses are right to push the Government to behave more sensibly when it comes to immigration, it is also true that there are solutions to their recruitment problems going begging. Those businesses that are smart enough to realise that will find themselves getting a much needed leg up.

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