West Midlands firms having to fight to find new staff

Businesses are facing a perfect storm as they grapple with a crisis in recruitment.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Black Country Chamber of Commerce chief executive Sarah Moorhouse at the conference
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Black Country Chamber of Commerce chief executive Sarah Moorhouse at the conference

Bosses in the region today spoke of the struggle to find people with the right skills.

And they say Covid has changed attitudes, with many potential recruits not willing to get back into a 9-5 routine.

Chief executive of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, Sarah Moorhouse, said: “Although vacancies across the region remain at high levels, businesses struggle to fill positions due to critical skills shortages.

"We need to remove barriers to work through flexible working practices where appropriate, rapid re-training and improvements to infrastructure.”

In a bid to tackle the problem a new apprenticeship scheme is being set up in the region called Path 2 Apprenticeship.

It is being backed by £200,000 from the West Midlands Combined Authority and aims to unlock the talents of young people, especially those not in education, employment or training.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands and chair of the WMCA, said: “I’m delighted that this public-private partnership has been set up to help accelerate the take up of apprenticeships, especially amongst marginalised young people who have been hit so hard by the pandemic and current economic slowdown.”

The pilot, which will initially train 120 young people, includes a collaboration of stakeholders including the Department of Work and Pensions, BCTG and Pet-Xi Training, alongside support from Stay Nimble and Accenture.

Businesses battle to find workers they need to keep alive

It’s a tough time for many businesses. Of many issues they face, finding the right kind of staff is among the biggest.

Brexit has brought a challenge as has negotiating a pandemic and factoring in rising energy prices and a cost of living crisis.

And, on top of all that, firms are continuing to wrestle with hiring challenges into 2023 and beyond.

A recent Chamber of Commerce survey revealed that 76 per cent of those businesses who responded are struggling to recruit. Another from the Federation of Small Businesses reinforced that – in fact 78 per cent said they were finding it hard to bring in new staff.

Sarah Moorhouse

The recently-appointed chief executive of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, Sarah Moorhouse, said: “Although vacancies across the region remain at high levels, businesses struggle to fill positions due to critical skills shortages and a rise in people leaving the labour market through early retirement or long-term illness.

“Additional flashpoints such as inflationary pressures and the recession mean that businesses struggle to retain key people as they seek higher salaries while there is a threat that positions go unfilled due to waning confidence and recruitment freezes.

“We need to remove barriers to work through flexible working practices where appropriate, rapid re-training and improvements to infrastructure to ensure that we can get people to the jobs.

“Unless we address this mismatch between skills gaps and the needs of businesses now, and for the future, there is a real potential to damage firms, growth and productivity.

"That is why activities such as the chamber’s This is the Black Country, with its focus on skills and our involvement in the Local Skills Improvement Plan, are important as we provide a bridge between employers and policymakers, ensuring that the skills agenda remains a priority.”

Richard Sheehan, the chief executive of the Shropshire Chamber, says recruitment is now a “major issue” in the county and believes the pandemic has played a significant role in the recruitment challenge.

He says the whole ethos of recruitment has changed as a result of people being forced to work from home during lockdowns.

“The pandemic has changed people’s relationship with the work place in many cases,” he said. “There are a lot of vacancies that companies are struggling to fill simply because they can’t accommodate a work-from-home environment.

“The ‘working from home’ factor is something which has become a lot more important to a lot more people. It’s taken businesses a long time to realise that, actually, they have to sell themselves now because it is such a tight labour market.

“It’s almost a reversal of the past. We are in a situation now where no longer do people apply for a job and it’s just about them having to sell themselves. Businesses have to do the same.

“The pandemic has changed people’s whole attitude towards work and the workplace. The migrant labour issue has affected us here in Shropshire too, especially with the sectors we have such as those surrounding agriculture, tourism, leisure and hospitality.

“They have been hit really hard by the loss of that labour, there’s no question, and we have been flagging that up for more than a year, and progress needs to happen.”

Training provider BCTG has been selected by the West Midlands Combined Authority to deliver a ground-breaking training course.

Path 2 Apprenticeship, which is being backed by £200,000 from WMCA, aims to unlock the talents of young people, especially those not in education, employment or training.

The initiative, is the result of a partnership between the WMCA and professional services company Accenture, seeks to tackle the region’s skills shortage and increase the number of apprentices being taken on by small and medium-sized businesses across the region.

It will also complement the success that the WMCA has had with its near £40 million apprentice levy transfer fund which has supported more than 1,000 SMEs and nearly 3,000 apprentices.

BCTG chef Chris Luty

Chris Luty, chairman of Oldbury-based BCTG, said: “The course aims to unlock the talents of young people while getting them ready for work in growth industries like construction, digital and logistics.”

BCTG Group supports almost 10,000 young people and adults each year.

The group has10 sites in Birmingham, the Black Country, Staffordshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme, and includes PTP Training, trading as Performance Through People, BCTG Ltd, Eurosource Solutions, Further Training and The Apprenticeship Works.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands and chair of the WMCA, said: "This apprenticeship training pilot aims to attract and inspire young people, unlocking their talents while getting them ready for work in our growth industries like construction, digital and logistics.

“This will also help address the skills shortage which is affecting many businesses at the moment and help sow the seeds for the sort of high-skilled workforce our region will need to thrive and prosper in the years ahead.”

The pilot, which will initially train 120 young people, includes a collaboration of stakeholders including the Department of Work and Pensions, BCTG and Pet-Xi Training, alongside support from Stay Nimble and Accenture.

The scheme includes a six-week training course to support young people into good apprenticeships, financial support for eligible participants with cost of living items like travel and childcare, and digital and sustainability skills, reflecting the needs of many businesses to adapt to digitalisation and net zero targets.

It will focus on employers who can offer good apprenticeships at the end of the training, paying at least the real living wage, and in addition offer support, including mentoring and coaching

During the course, young people will also receive support, if required, for maths and English skills and the training will focus on meeting the skills needs of SMEs across the West Midlands.

Hollie Whittles

Hollie Whittles, HR Director at Telford-based Purple Frog Systems, is a leading figure in the Federation of small Businesses and has also reflected on recruitment as a “massive problem”.

“From the discussions I am having in Shropshire, businesses just can’t find the right staff with the right skills, in the right place at the right time,” she said. “We have an ageing population in the Marches.

“We are a rural area and businesses are being hit by all manner of rising costs, so recruitment on top of that is a massive problem.

“We have a never-before-seen situation where the number of job vacancies is higher than the number of people unemployed or looking to change career."

She added: “The pandemic led to new work practices and flexibilities, which many people are reluctant to leave behind. Many of those who are looking for work are holding out for much higher pay and much more flexible working arrangements.

“Many workers in traditionally lower pay, high-stress industries, have decided to change career altogether, creating even greater shortages in areas such as care, hospitality and retail.

“They are issues which would pose challenges to anyone looking to recruit new staff. With them all coming into play at the same time, the situation is becoming critical. I recently heard from Shropshire SMEs who have turned work away because they lack staff capacity to take anything else on. Others have run recruitment campaigns and had no applicants come forward.

“Some, principally in the IT sector, have had staff poached by larger corporate enterprises and then struggled to back fill the vacancies.”

Hollie says that, moving forward, a stronger relationship is needed between businesses and education in order to try to promote opportunities and careers.

“We found in our survey that only 17 per cent of businesses are engaging with schools and colleges,” she said.

“Sometimes, instead of leaving it to the big businesses, we need to encourage smaller businesses to speak up and communicate.”

Graham Guest

Graham Guest, principal of Telford College and skills champion of the Marches LEP, says that link between education and business is vital, moving forward.

“As a college, we have seen the challenges,” he said. “We recruit teaching staff but, with regards to other staff, it been a struggle so we feel everyone’s pain.

“What we are beginning to see is businesses with a long-term plan, looking to work with schools and colleges to create a pipeline of recruits and that’s really positive. With work experience and apprenticeships – there’s a plethora of opportunities for employers to get involved.

"There are lots of initiatives and hopefully business and education can work together to meet the challenges. The more businesses that engage the better.”

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