BCC/Totaljobs: Increase in businesses attempting to recruit in Q4 despite November lockdown, while some sectors left behind

Results from the British Chambers of Commerce Quarterly Recruitment Outlook (QRO), in partnership with Totaljobs, found that while there was a modest improvement in the overall number of businesses attempting to recruit in Q4, sectoral disparities remain.

Fieldwork for the survey was carried out between 2 and 26 November 2020, during the second lockdown. It found that: 

  • 41% of firms attempted to recruit in Q4, up slightly from 37% in Q3, but this remains below pre-pandemic levels (55% in Q1 2020).
  • Firms in the public and voluntary and construction sectors were most likely to recruit, while hotels and catering firms were the least likely to recruit.
  • Overall, a quarter of firms saw a decrease in the size of their workforce over the last three months.
  • Looking ahead to the next quarter, 19% of firms expect an increase in the size of their workforce, 68% expect it to remain the same (up from 62% in Q3), and 14% expect a decrease.

The largest independent survey of recruitment intentions in the UK serves as a barometer of the UK labour market. It received 5,900 responses, 95% of which were from SMEs employing fewer than 250 people.

The survey follows the BCC’s latest Quarterly Economic Survey, which found that business conditions remained weak in the fourth quarter, as the second lockdown squeezed activity.

Number of firms recruiting remains steady 

The number of firms attempting to recruit in Q4 rose slightly to 41% from 37% in Q3, despite the introduction of a four-week second national lockdown from 5 November.

Significant sectoral differences in the types of firms attempting to recruit have emerged since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and remained in Q4 2020:

  • Over half (56%) of firms in the construction sector attempted to recruit in the quarter, up from 48% in Q3
  • 53% of firms in the transport and distribution sector attempted to recruit, up from 44% in Q3
  • Two-thirds (67%) of businesses in the public and voluntary sector attempted to recruit in the quarter, up from 57% in Q3

While these sectors have increased recruitment in recent months, overall levels remain down compared to before the pandemic; in Q4 2019, 67% of construction, 62% of transport and distribution, and 75% of public and voluntary sectors attempted to recruit.

Firms in the hotel and catering sector were once again amongst the least likely to recruit – only 22% attempted to, down from 30% in Q3 – reflecting the impact of forced closures under the national lockdown and tiered restrictions on their revenue and cash flow.

However, the impact of the pandemic is also being felt by businesses that haven’t been required to shut their doors.

Businesses in the marketing and media sector, for example, were the second least likely to recruit (33%). With 44% of these firms reporting decreases in sales in the quarter, QRO data demonstrates the economic impact of continued restrictions in the supply chain or in reduced budgets.

Less than half of firms in the retail and wholesale sector attempted to recruit (40%), up slightly compared to Q3 (37%).

Looking ahead

The percentage of firms that anticipated the size of their workforce to increase in Q1 2021 (19%) was virtually unchanged from the previous quarter (18%). A higher number of firms (68%) expected no change to the size of their workforce in Q1 2021 compared to 62% in the previous quarter.

However, 14% of firms expect the size of their workforce to decrease in the next quarter, slightly fewer compared to the previous quarter (19%).

Construction firms (24%) and manufacturing firms (22%) were the most likely to expect the size of their workforce to increase in the next quarter, highlighting higher levels of optimism felt by those sectors able to continue operating despite Covid-19 restrictions.

Hotel and catering firms (35%) and, perhaps more surprisingly, transport and distribution firms (25%), were the most likely to expect the size of their workforce to decrease in the next quarter.

Recruitment trends

Looking at Totaljobs application and vacancy data, in Q4 2020, logistics, followed by IT, administration, sales and customer service roles were receiving the most applications on the site. Comparing October and November 2020 with Q3, there was a 26% rise in job vacancies, before a seasonal decline over the Christmas period. The highest volume of vacancies was seen in logistics, IT and skilled trades. Candidate activity continues to outstrip vacancies and rose by 11% in October and November compared to Q3.

Looking back further to Q4 2019 compared to Q4 2020, logistics and social care have seen the strongest recovery in terms of their recruitment, with demand for roles in these sectors only dropping very slightly year on year, as calls for more staff increased over the course of the pandemic.

As we approach the end of January, Totaljobs data shows skilled trades, social care and engineering join IT and logistics as the sectors posting the highest volume of roles. The market continues to be employer-led, with applications outstripping vacancies. In the first weeks of January, Totaljobs saw over 2.6 million applications compared to 102,000 vacancies on site.

Commenting on the results, BCC Co-Executive Director Claire Walker said:

“Our data shows the extremely difficult circumstances facing many businesses across the UK.

“With many sectors facing major difficulties in retaining and recruiting staff, the Chancellor must immediately provide assurances that support will last for the whole of 2021 to enable firms to plan ahead. That starts with extending the Job Retention Scheme until a full reopening of the economy is possible.

“Proposed reforms to Further Education, putting the skills needs of businesses at its heart, are welcome and will enable more people to train and retrain for jobs of the future.

“The vaccine rollout provides genuine light at the end of the tunnel – but it is essential that government provides the support that ensures that businesses survive the current crisis and are ready and able to power economic recovery, creating new jobs, when the time comes.”

Totaljobs CEO Jon Wilson said:

“The vaccine rollout has given businesses and people hope, but there is still a way to go. Many sectors remain in a challenging position and have put hiring on pause, while others are able to accelerate their hiring to meet demand.

“Throughout the difficulties of the pandemic, a real positive has been the increasing determination from jobseekers to take their careers into their own hands, focusing on their personal development by proactively upskilling. Totaljobs research found that 30% of workers acquired a new skill or qualification last year.

“While the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, set to launch this April, looks promising in its aim to drive adult education and training, changes must be made to the scheme to improve eligibility. Through this, more businesses, no matter their sector, can see the benefits of this scheme, alongside jobseekers and workers across the UK.”

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