Where have all the candidates gone? 5 tips for attracting and retaining your people in the current market

With UK employment falling to its lowest level since 1974, ECI brought together its People leaders for an ECI Unlocked event to discuss the difficulty in finding new candidates, and why it massively increases the importance of an effective attraction and retention strategy.

Why is hiring people so difficult at the moment?

There have been several long-term pandemic impacts causing people to leave the job market. A significant proportion is the number of people no longer looking for work due to long-term sickness. Half a million workers over 50 years also took themselves out of the labour market during the pandemic, and the pandemic baby boom has also seen a concentration of parents reducing their hours, with 28.5% of mothers and 4.5% of fathers with a child under 14 reducing their working hours. Youth employment remains at >10% with 900,000 young people opting to stay in education due to low job prospects during the pandemic. These various impacts were compounded by Brexit, which saw 1.3m non-UK citizens leave the workforce since 2019.

It might have been expected that UK unemployment would have been impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, but so far this isn’t what we’re seeing. There are still fewer unemployed people than job vacancies. This puts a greater imperative on keeping the people you have, and upskilling them, as the process of hiring replacements has become too cumbersome and expensive. So how do you do that?

1. Flexibility is key

There is little doubt that if you want to retain staff, particularly younger workers, you need to offer hybrid flexibility. The next generation wants to have the social aspect of the office, but also be trusted to get on with it at home where possible. While managing hybrid working can raise challenges, it also presents a new hiring opportunity. Many over 50s have left the job market and more parents are looking for part-time roles. At the moment well-paid part-time skilled roles are hard to come by, so there is an opportunity for companies to tap into this economically inactive labour force. Another opportunity flagged by Rob Blythe, Founder of Instant Impact, the in-house recruitment experts, is the globalisation of hiring. 60% of the companies they’re working with are looking further afield than just the UK for hiring.

So, flexibility brings opportunities, but it needs investment to make it work. Sarah Willett, CPO at The Very Group, outlined that hybrid is only successful if there are strong people managers. People need clear objectives, personal development plans and coaching. Managers may need training in how to do this remotely. Similarly, it’s important to be flexible, but managers may also need training to be able to say no to unreasonable demands. Many may have found that the concessions given away during COVID-19 have now become unworkable, and if they now need to be rowed back, it will need to be done very carefully to not impact attraction and retention.

2. You can’t mobilise talent without a strong EVP

A sense of belonging and purpose is important to people, and it is increasingly a key differentiator for whether they stay or look elsewhere. In particular, we’re seeing more employees demanding that ESG gets put into practice. They want to understand where their employer is on the ESG journey, it to feel tangible with clear metrics, and ideally see a clear roadmap ahead. One People Leader highlighted how one of their Analysts pushed for change that was then rolled out across the firm, and as well as the immediate positive engagement, it was a powerful case study when talking to potential hires about the impact they could have.

Communication and celebration are also key. Bionic stressed the importance of an internal comms plan, and about listening not just talking. Celebrations included end-of-year thank yous, with each business area doing a wrap at the year-end, not just about business goals but also about the personal goals their team had achieved. Creating moments elicit a strong emotional response and they are remembered by teams.

3. Development and progression

Employees are keen for development and progression paths, and it allows firms to upskill people into roles rather than having to hire in a difficult market. Linda Jodrell, Chief People Officer at Citation, stressed the importance of discussing potential, clear development goals with a long-term view, and highlighted the benefit of having a growth-focussed PE backer to bring this to life. Linda pointed out that the average tenure for younger generations is significantly lower than previous generations, and therefore you need to make sure you are giving people a reason to stay, as they won’t due to loyalty or stability. One way they have done this at Citation is they have widened schemes around HR & Employment Law Academy and H&S Development programme, to attract and develop early careers and enable internal progression.

BCN discussed the role of its Academy apprenticeship scheme. Not only is it hugely attractive to those joining, but it also opens up training and learning opportunities to existing teams and enables promotion from within which is easier and more cost-effective than going out to hire. It also means people can move over into different tech skills as they progress during their careers. As well as helping to equip people with the right training to succeed, an additional benefit has been that people enjoy teaching others, and it gives them more purpose in their own careers.

4. Third-party recruitment models

If trying to access hard-to-reach talent pools with limited internal resources and budgets, third-party support can be a great way to achieve that. There are several models including Recruitment Process Outsourcing such as Instant Impact, which outsources your hiring team but still embeds them within your business, or Hire-Train-Deploy such as Grayce or Sigma Labs, as well as your traditional recruiters. These models give flexibility so you don’t have a bottleneck during a sudden spike in demand, and help you look more broadly at the market which can be helpful in areas like tech if you don’t have deep pockets.

Often you may need to find good people and train them in the relevant skillsets – tech skills can after all be taught in a way that EQ can’t be – but may not have the capacity. Third parties can again help here, in particular solving the issue impacting the under-25 market at the moment which is that everyone is looking for existing skillsets and experience.

While using third-party models can be a quick solution, you need to ensure that you have solid metrics to assess them, around not just the quality of hire, but also around delivering cost reduction for your team.

5. Pay and benefits

With inflation still in the news, the team discussed some solutions they had used to help protect staff. These included cost-of-living one-off payments, bringing forward annual pay increases for lowest earners, more frequent pay reviews during the year, pay flexibility around not only paying in arrears once a month, and placing an emphasis on market-based rather than inflationary linked pay reviews. While many leveraged solutions such as these during the last 12 months, we are now going into winter with its high associated costs plus the mortgage time-bomb, which means this is clearly an ongoing issue.

Worth also considering benefits alongside pay, as companies need to do the over-and-above salary stuff to attract candidates and keep them happy. There are benefits benchmarking providers to help check you are in line with the market, and a wealth of innovative benefits providers which can make a big impact on staff wellbeing and their impression of the perks of the job.

At our last People Forum the war for talent and hiring challenges were front of mind. We look forward to our next People Forum where we are discussing the realities of making hybrid working work, the role of AI in HR, and how to effectively report on HR success.

About the author

Rich Pearce

"I work in ECI’s Commercial Team to support our management teams in unlocking growth opportunities by offering hands on support as they need it. I also lead our People function which involves driving the people agenda across the portfolio and managing much of the HR-related functions internally here at ECI."

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