Employers have strong hiring intentions but still face talent challenges

As we come into the second half of 2022, it’s undeniable that there is a lot of uncertainty both in the economy and in the world at large.

ince writing this column for the special Top 100 Companies edition of Ulster Business last year, we have seen war break out in Ukraine, energy costs surging, inflation sparking a cost of living crisis that is squeezing consumer spending and political turbulence that has led to a change of Prime Minister in London and the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont.

In the face of all of this, employers in every sector of the economy have been getting on with business and despite the headwinds, the labour market has remained very strong, with demand in many industries well above where it was before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020.

Roles across most areas in technology, construction, engineering, and marketing are in high demand and the topic of skills shortages has never been too far from the headlines over the past 12 months.

It’s really encouraging to see the range of professions and roles represented by the companies in the Top 50 Employers list this year, and those companies are to be commended for the important role they play in Northern Ireland’s economy. But as we look at what might lie ahead for the recruitment market for the rest of this year, and into 2023, there are a number of challenges on the horizon.

Hays runs a quarterly insights survey which receives over 8,000 responses from employers and professionals across the UK, including Northern Ireland. In the latest snapshot, taken from a survey in the last two weeks in June, 71% of employers told us they are currently hiring staff – and that rose to 77% among respondents in Northern Ireland.

While confidence in the UK’s current economic and general employment outlook was more mixed, 53% of companies still rated the prospects for their own organisation as positive, rising to 55% in NI.

However, only 22% of employers in the UK and NI told us they currently have access to the right skills to meet their organisation’s objectives, with 63% (66% in NI) saying the biggest barrier is competition from other employers in their sector and 58% (64% in NI) saying there is simply a shortage of suitable applicants out there.

It’s a challenge we’ve heard a lot about in the past couple of years and, as I’ve said many times, employers need to focus more than ever on their overall offer to candidates, not just the salary they can offer.

Of course, salary is still the first thing most candidates look at and, with the cost of living crisis starting to squeeze, it was perhaps no surprise that our latest survey found 43% of employers (41% in NI) have increased staff pay in the last three months, and 23% (25% in NI) say they intend to bring a pay rise in over the next three months.

But employers who want to both attract and retain talent also need to make sure they can clearly articulate and demonstrate their policies on other desirable criteria, such as flexible working, training opportunities and work-life balance.

The results of Hays’ surveys through the pandemic showed that the importance of flexible and hybrid working increased dramatically as people in different sectors realised they could do their jobs without being in a central office every day.

Our latest survey indicates that over two-thirds of employers are offering hybrid working in their organisations with 20% saying they aren’t and the rest unable to offer it due to the type of business they are in.

Interestingly 80% of employers in London are now offering hybrid working, but only 52% of those we surveyed in Northern Ireland. And compared with the overall average of 60% of employers who trust their staff to work effectively and productively in a hybrid arrangement, only 50% in NI agreed.

Of the employers who are offering hybrid working, a quarter (20% in NI) said their offering is flexible and staff can choose how often they come into the office, 21% (28%) said staff must attend the office three days a week, while 19% (17% in NI) say staff must be in the office two days a week minimum.

Over the next 12 months, 65% (57% in NI) of organisations who are offering hybrid working don’t expect their offer to change – however over a quarter (35% in NI) indicated they will require staff to be in the office more often

If employers start to change their policy on hybrid working and insist people start coming back to an office more often, there will likely be some consequences. Around half of those we surveyed said hybrid is their preference with about a quarter of respondents saying they either preferred to be fully remote or fully in the workplace.

Hybrid working has undoubtedly worked for a lot of people, with just over 80% of professionals saying us their work-life balance is better when working in a hybrid way, even though 40% (32% in NI) say they typically work longer hours when working remotely.

Over a third (38%) of employers say it is now less important that the staff they are hiring are close to the workplace than it was before the pandemic. This is slightly lower in NI at 31% and while 35% of employers are conducting first stage interviews virtually, this figure is only 17% in NI.

There was a lot of talk about the great resignation during the height of the pandemic, although I prefer to think of it more as a reshuffle, driven by people thinking more deeply about what they want from a job than ever before.

We can’t deny that the competition for talent in some sectors is still intense, and I expect this to be the case throughout the rest of this year, based on our survey results, which indicated 13% of employers are offering a sign-on bonus to attract talent, 27% of employers saying are more likely to offer counter offers in the last six months and 40% being prepared to offer flexible working outside their normal hybrid arrangements.

We’re seeing more organisations considering offering four-day working weeks, providing enhanced parental leave and allowing people to take bank holidays at other times in the year, all in order to get that slight advantage on the competition.

Of those we surveyed in June, 58% (62% in NI) said they had an interview for a job within the last six months and 46% of them (53% in NI) said that was prompted by desire for a higher salary and 19% (21%) for career progression opportunities. Similarly, 58% (53%) of professionals say they plan to move jobs within the next 12 months.

These are very high numbers, so the onus is firmly on employers to be really clear about what they can offer both existing and potential staff if they want to make sure they have the talent they need to succeed. 

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