Welsh employers are currently facing a significant challenge when it comes to recruiting skilled workers. According to last year’s Business Barometer (published by The Open University in partnership with the British Chambers of Commerce) two-thirds of businesses in Wales are struggling to fill vacancies, either due to a lack of available talent or a skills gap in the workforce. This situation is not unique to Wales, as there are 1.1 million vacancies across the UK.
Despite efforts to provide training and incentives for workers to upskill, the demand for skilled workers continues to outstrip the supply. This roundtable was hosted by the OU and Chambers Wales, to identify various issues facing Wales in terms of both recruitment and retention of staff and how some of these issues could be addressed.
There was a lot of discussion around the concept of a geographically diverse workforce and how it comes with both advantages and challenges for Welsh businesses. A hybrid working model that accommodates flexible location preferences has made it easier to recruit graduates from a wider geographical area and keep young talent within Wales. However, when it comes to more senior or niche roles, the recruitment process attendees said that it’s more challenging.
Additionally, employees are somewhat hesitant to work in the office two or three days a week, leading to a lack of motivation to use office spaces. To address this, some businesses have developed workplace agreements that outline the benefits of being present in the office and coordinating office space.
The question of hybrid working fostered a complex discussion. Being physically present in an office environment was seen as essential for building soft skills among young employees, but a key factor was seen as using an employee-first approach, to give employees the choice of how they want to use office spaces. However, encouraging adoption of a hybrid working culture with more office time has proven difficult across generations.
There was discussion around how to attack the recruitment issue for Wales at its core. Drawing more jobs and skills into Wales is an ongoing challenge for Welsh businesses.
Additionally, it's important to make regions more attractive to ensure that local talent isn't lost to big cities. Investing in people and offering opportunities for growth and development within firms can be a way to avoid this. By doing so, Welsh businesses can attract more jobs and skills into the region and create a more vibrant and dynamic local economy.
The education landscape in Wales plays a critical role in retaining skills among younger people. One of the biggest challenges cited was providing upskilling opportunities for employees, which if missing, often results in employees leaving a company due to a lack of progression.
Reskilling opportunities, shadowing programmes, and work placement experiences have been missing from the current landscape due to COVID-19. Attendees said greater engagement between businesses and the education landscape will help reverse the falling studying numbers in Welsh regions, but attendees said the funding must be available to make that happen.
Roundtable participants said it was important to recognise that soft skills, attitudes, and behaviours are increasingly crucial for success in the workplace, and businesses should be willing to think differently and be flexible to accommodate the new generation, while doing as much as possible to develop those soft skills more broadly.
Established norms around professionalism, dress code, and boundaries are being challenged, and attendees said Welsh businesses need to adapt to keep up with the changing workplace culture.
To address skills shortages and fill employment gaps, Welsh businesses could consider tapping into other sources of labour, such as inactive communities. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed more people into economic inactivity, but those who vacated the workforce are not the only resource. For example, there are many people with disabilities on the benefits system who want to work but the parameters of their benefits disallow them from doing so.
There are millions of people within the UK in this situation, and many of them have valuable skill sets that could be utilised by businesses. However, there needs to be a change in attitude in terms of removing the barriers that prevent these individuals from entering or re-entering the workforce and therefore enabling social mobility.