Staff shortages threaten to derail Covid recovery


Britain is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of staff shortages that will hamper the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, two entrepreneurs have claimed.

Speaking to the Mail, Homeserve boss Richard Harpin said a dearth of tradesmen and women threatens the Government’s ‘build back better’ strategy.

And with businesses from restaurants to hauliers struggling to recruit, CBI president Lord Bilimoria will today warn that an adequate supply of staff ‘is critical for securing the UK’s recovery’.

Demand: Richard Harpin wants ministers to expand the ‘shortage occupation list’, which sets out the jobs where there are not enough workers

Both are urging ministers to expand the ‘shortage occupation list’, which sets out the jobs where there are not enough workers.

Any job on that list can be filled by migrant workers more easily. Currently on the list are a host of jobs in the health service and care as well as science, engineering and IT.

Harpin and Bilimoria said it should be expanded to include jobs from butchers, bricklayers and welders to bathroom fitters, fencers and locksmiths.

Harpin’s home emergencies company Homeserve owns the Checkatrade website which last year was used by 13m people to find tradesmen.

He said: ‘Demand for skilled workers is rocketing. Construction, big tech, education, hospitality – the skills shortage is biting across the board. 

Part of the problem is an exodus of European workers. Some blame the pandemic, some blame Brexit. Whatever the reason, it is a big problem for British business. 

The implications are wide ranging and serious. The Government’s ambitious plans to level up opportunities across British society are at risk. 

It is hard to build back better when you don’t have any builders. If you’ve tried to find a skilled tradesperson recently you will know.’

Citing a recent survey by Checkatrade, the Huddersfield-born father of three said 80 per cent of homeowners are planning to do some work on their house in the next 12 months.

‘Spending most of our time at home has led to a surge in demand for skilled trades to carry out home improvements,’ he said.

Harpin, 56, who set up HomeServe in 1993 and built it into a £3.3billion firm listed on the FTSE 250, urged ministers to expand the ‘shortage occupation list’.

Investing in skills: CBI president Lord Bilimoria recruiting workers from overseas shouldn't be Britain's only response to labour shortages

Investing in skills: CBI president Lord Bilimoria recruiting workers from overseas shouldn’t be Britain’s only response to labour shortages

He added: ‘The list of shortage occupations, designed to identify and fast-track entry to the UK for skills in short supply, is out-of-date and falls woefully short of the economy’s current requirements. This needs updating urgently.

‘Across Checkatrade we see demand outstripping supply for a range of trades that don’t make the list – bathroom fitters, kitchen fitters, fencers, tree surgeons, locksmiths – the list is long. 

The situation is now critical. With so many skills in immediate short supply, we must go faster. 

‘These skilled trades are just as important to our society as IT analysts, vets and graphic designers and should be included on the list alongside them.

‘This simple change is the biggest single thing we can do today to solve the skills shortfall.’

He warned that the problem was about to get worse due to tomorrow’s EU Settlement Scheme deadline. EU, EEA and Swiss citizens must apply to the scheme to continue living in the UK after June 30.

Harpin warned some EU nationals – including tradesmen – may leave after the deadline.

‘The situation is now critical,’ he said.

Longer term, he sees apprenticeships as a key driver of improving skills in the UK.

‘Getting this right could be transformational for hundreds of thousands of young people across Britain, and a UK economy in desperate need of their skills,’ said Harpin.

His view is backed by Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer.

In a speech to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s annual conference today, the crossbench peer will say: ‘As lockdown restrictions lift, we’re seeing a surge in the demand for labour – and we know many businesses are already struggling to recruit.

‘It’s a big challenge, not just for individual businesses, who can’t find the people they need, but also for our longer-term economic recovery.’

The 59-year-old British-Indian entrepreneur will point to the departure of overseas workers during the pandemic and the impact of the furlough scheme, which has deterred some from looking for a new job.

‘We’ve got a perfect storm of factors coalescing,’ Bilimoria will say. ‘We need the Government to immediately update the shortage occupation list.

‘Butchers, bricklayers, and welders for example. Businesses would also welcome a commitment to review the list annually, to keep it responsive to the ebb and flow of skill demands across the whole of the UK’s economy.

‘And where there are clear, evidenced labour shortages, businesses should be able to hire from overseas.

‘But it’s really important to stress – workers from overseas aren’t, and shouldn’t be, our only response to labour shortages. 

‘Investing in skills here, too, is vital. It’s not an either/or choice. We must do both to ensure our firms have the access to people they need to succeed.’

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