As Britain’s economy grapples with the impact of a record number of job vacancies, a labour market expert has warned that the problem may continue for another three to five years.
The impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union, and of the COVID-19 pandemic, have sparked one of the biggest worker shortages in years, Donald Houston, a professor from the University of Portsmouth, told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
Data released on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of job vacancies rose to a new high of 1.3 million from March to May 2022. This is over half a million more than before the pandemic.
The record for job vacancies has been broken several times since the second half of last year. In the first quarter of 2022, for the first time since records began, there were fewer unemployed people than job vacancies across Britain.
“It’s important to say that what’s happening is not that the economy is suddenly booming, and that we’ve got a huge growth in labour demand. This is driven entirely by a reduction in the number of people in the workforce,” Houston said.
British employers in many industrial sectors are reporting serious difficulties recruiting enough workers, he said. This has led to difficulties including chaos at airports, and massive flight cancellations during the jubilee holiday.
“What’s really been going on is a combination of the pandemic made slightly worse by Brexit,” said Houston, a professor of economic geography at the university’s faculty of science and health.
He said Britain’s shortage of workers became evident as the country emerged from lockdown.
“Some staff moved into early retirement because they’d had enough of working during the lockdown, and a lot of people moved out of the labour market because of long-term sickness, no doubt a good chunk of that due to long COVID. And then we’ve also lost about 100,000 European workers compared to before the pandemic,” he told Xinhua.
Earlier this month, an ONS survey revealed that an estimated 2 million people in Britain had lingering COVID-19 symptoms more than four weeks after their initial infection, which is classified as long COVID.
However, Houston said the job vacancy crisis should improve fairly rapidly, but will not completely disappear for a long time.
“Because some of the issues are long-term structural issues, such as losing well over 100,000 people of working age to early retirement during the pandemic, and losing another 100,000-plus people to long-term sickness because of the pandemic, plus the loss of 100,000 EU workers. Those problems aren’t going to go away anytime soon,” he said.
“It’s going to take another three to five years beyond that to make sure that we have sufficient workers, and workers with sufficient skills to build a sustainable recovery,” the professor said.
He also blamed the geographically uneven vacancy crisis across Britain. The highest vacancy rates in the country have been seen in rural parts of the southwest and northwest, as well as certain inner London boroughs.
“Some of these rural and inner London boroughs are some of the places that have the greatest dependency on foreign workers, in particular for agriculture and hospitality,” said Houston.