The Great Recruitment of 2021: Pandemic leaves chronic staff shortages

Businesses and recruiters struggle to find staff in a market that now favours the worker

Red Kennedy of Voici creperie and wine bar in Rathmines, Dublin. ‘Anyone with experience can name their price. But there is a limit. I know that certain companies aren’t opening on certain days because they don’t have the staff.’Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Red Kennedy of Voici creperie and wine bar in Rathmines, Dublin. ‘Anyone with experience can name their price. But there is a limit. I know that certain companies aren’t opening on certain days because they don’t have the staff.’Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The numerous “staff wanted” signs in the windows say it all. Businesses are grappling with major shortages of workers as the Covid-19 pandemic up-ends the working lives of people.

The global health emergency and lockdowns have made people reassess jobs and careers over the past 20 months, and the vacancies left by departing staff have created a new headache.

The Great Resignation of 2020-21 has given way to the Great Recruitment of 2021.

Job vacancies are running at pre-pandemic levels, but prospective employees are not snapping up roles. As the busy Christmas period approaches for the retail industry, new surveys show that the number of people seeking seasonal work is down dramatically on pre-Covid times.

When Covid broke out everywhere shut and trying to get people back to work was incredibly difficult

Red Kennedy, owner of the Scoop ice cream parlour chain and the Voici creperie and wine bar in Rathmines, Dublin, is one of many businesses swept up in the great recruitment drive.

Sitting in his car near a Scoop outlet on Aungier Street in Dublin city centre, Kennedy says there are businesses up and down the street looking for staff. A nearby bar is looking for experienced bar and floor staff. A cafe opposite wants staff with at least one year’s experience.

On the other side of the road a fast-food outlet is looking for waiting staff, kitchen porters and two cooks. Further up the road a sign in a laundrette is searching for staff too.

Kennedy is looking for five or six employees for his own businesses, relying on referrals from staff, job adverts in windows and “people walking by”.

“Finding floor staff has been fine but getting kitchen staff is a disaster,” he said.

Pay increases

To retain and attract new employees Kennedy has had to give pay increases and tailor hours to manage specific shift requests. Businesses having to do the “hokey cokey” around ever-changing Covid-19 guidelines for hospitality has not helped to bring in new people, he says.

“When Covid broke out everywhere shut and trying to get people back to work was incredibly difficult,” said Kennedy.

Brazilian staff qualified as accountants or in other professions who worked for him either returned home or took up work in their chosen professions through online remote work. Student staff left the city and returned home to family homes as colleges moved to remote learning.

Kennedy had to hire and train up younger students who weren’t eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), which has been a disincentive for others to return to work.

About 70 per cent of his staff are new to the business. “Anyone with experience can name their price. But there is a limit. I know that certain companies aren’t opening on certain days because they don’t have the staff,” he said.

Across the recruitment sector, there are reports of businesses struggling to hire.

“Everybody is under pressure to try and recruit,” said Orla Moran, general manager of online recruitment company IrishJobs.ie.

“Everybody is back hiring all at once and the pool of talent hasn’t grown so it is down to supply and demand. Companies advertising with us are under pressure to pay higher salaries.”

Job postings on the recruitment website were up 42 per cent this autumn on 2019, before the pandemic. The sector that was shut down the longest is facing the toughest challenge: hospitality.

“It is a sector that was shut down at the same time and they have all come back at the same time. It has been under enormous pressure trying to get staff back at short notice,” said Ms Moran.

Changing attitudes

At one of the country’s largest fast food chains, Supermac’s, there are five webpages of job vacancies on its website, from delivery drivers in Co Tipperary to assistant managers in Dublin to 100 roles at a new outlet in Tuam, Co Galway.

Founder and owner Pat McDonagh puts the shortage of workers down to a combination of factors: people’s changing attitudes to work as a result of Covid-19, the availability of PUP financial support, people having savings and migrant workers returning home in the pandemic.

“We are in a different world out there. It will rectify itself in due course but at the moment it’s difficult, especially in the hospitality industry and retail industry,” said Mr McDonagh.

The company has had to cast its net further afield. Mr McDonagh said he was seeking staff in eastern Europe along with Spain and Italy, something he hasn’t had to do since the early 2000s. “We did it a good bit back in 2003 and 2004,” he said.

The psychological contract of work itself and how we identify with work has changed. It’s no longer somewhere we go; it’s something we do

Jobs website Indeed published a report on Monday showing how employers in retail and hospitality were struggling to find staff for Christmas jobs. While seasonal jobs were just 2 per cent lower than in 2019, the number of people searching for those roles was down 24 per cent.

Robert MacGiolla Phadraig, founder-director and chief commercial officer of recruitment firm Sigmar, said that worker shortages are “the single biggest challenge to the Irish economy”. The company is seeing the highest number of job ads being placed in 20 years. “The power has shifted from employers to job-seekers and employees.”

For the hospitality, retail and healthcare sector that rely on immigration for workers, there are “major bottlenecks,” he says. For higher skilled workers the lure of working remotely has opened their eyes to new opportunities and changed how they value both work and time.

“The psychological contract of work itself and how we identify with work has changed. It’s no longer somewhere we go; it’s something we do but something we do in proximity to every other aspect of our life and that has shrank,” said Mr MacGiolla Phadraig.

Job notices

With online job notices going unnoticed, it is an employees’ market out there.

“I have never seen it like this and I have been recruiting since 1997,” said David Coyle, who specialises in IT recruitment through his Dublin company Methodius.

“It is not fantastic for recruiters because it is so difficult to get people but it is a great time if you are a young graduate with some experience.”

While there is growing pressure on employers to increase salary offers, it does not all boil down to money. The experience of remote working means people want to work from home more.

“A lot of people are saying that is non-negotiable. You do hear grumbling from the clients saying that they want staff in-house,” said Mr Coyle.

“But it’s a candidate’s market, 100 per cent, and employers are coming around to the idea that hybrid working is standard and always going to be there.”

Red Kennedy thinks attitudes to work have changed. He, at 54, considers himself “old school”, and would not have shied away from busy retail or hospitality work when he was younger.

“Some people shy away from that. I think people are a bit pickier no. Put it this way: minimum wage just won’t get you over the line.”

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