Where have all the workers gone and will they ever return?

When a luxury Manchester restaurant advertised for a receptionist in July last year, it was shocking to receive 963 applications in a day – not the 30 or more it had expected.

It was then. “It’s very, very different now,” says Carol Cairnes, director of people for the restaurant’s owner, D&D London. Its 40 foreign restaurants received on average about a tenth of the candidates they had last July on average, and some roles prove to be seriously difficult to fill.

“Our chef ads normally attract about 50 candidates; today we are lucky if we have five, ”she says, adding that of those five, only one or two were adequately qualified.

Welcome to one of Covid’s most curious developments: a series of labor shortages in rich countries even though millions are still unemployed.

While economists debate the causes and consequences of the phenomenon, and even how long it will last, the rest of us can only wonder how things have changed abruptly.

A visible sign of change is an assortment of scams, bonuses and benefits that would have seemed absurd a few months ago when workers faced a bloodbath in Covid Jobs.

The Australian state of Queensland has just launched a “work in paradise” campaign. which offers A $ 1,500 (£ 820) in cash plus travel subsidies to attract workers in a tourism sector affected by labor shortages.

In the United States, Amazon offers $ 1,500 sign-on bonus – plus another $ 100 if you can prove you’re vaccinated – and McDonald’s has joined a number of large American groups raising wages for staff.

In London, a restaurant near my office gives customers gift vouchers of £ 100 if they can successfully recommend a new hire. Another nearby restaurant offers its staff a bonus of up to £ 2,000 if they can do the same.

Recruiters are also struggling to hire recruiters. The competition for the top candidates is “red at the moment,” says Neil Carberry, executive director of the UK’s Recruitment and Recruitment Confederation. “I’ve never seen a market for experienced recruitment consultants like this,” he said last week.

Why is this happening now? One factor: a strong economic recovery in some places is increasing the demand for companies to reopen all at once from closed doors. “Everyone is recruiting at the same time,” says Tony Wilson, director of the research group at the UK Institute for Employment Studies. “It’s very, very unusual.”

Could furlough patterns and push pandemics push workers to flee? Experts disagree but it is clear that in sectors such as hospitality, people have left the industry for nursing homes, supermarkets and other places with friendlier hours and sometimes better pay.

Some countries have added pressures that could aggravate the shortage.

There has been an exodus of EU truck drivers since Brexit in the UK, where many industries relied heavily on workers from all over the English Channel. Before the UK left the EU in 2020, 72 per cent of the staff of the D&D London restaurant group were from the EU while 6 per cent were from other countries and 22 per cent were British.

Rigid border rules have been blamed for labor shortages in Australia and even in New Zealand, where a group of dairy farmers warned this month that the stress of labor shortages was so extravagant that it could lead to the loss “of both human and animal lives.”

For smaller companies, the struggle to find staff has been especially intense.

“It’s scary,” says Nick Ward, a Brighton chef in the UK who has been so desperate to find workers that he has resorted to paying friends to help him on busy days. He is far from alone. Moments after we spoke last week, he sent an urgent text from a restaurateur asking if Ward could come work for him that day, which he couldn’t.

It’s possible to feel great sympathy for those in Ward’s position, even being happy to see people working unsociable, unpredictable hours for low pay, eventually earning the upper hand. As IES’s Tony Wilson says, some industries have enjoyed a buy-in market for the better part of 15 years. “There has been a change in the balance of power,” he says. It may be temporary but for as long as it lasts, employers have no choice but to adjust.


Twitter: @pilitaclark

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