How to attract candidates in a shrinking workforce

by in Talent Attraction

The UK’s shrinking workforce is creating huge challenges for recruitment. Wave‘s Emily Buckley investigates the reasons for the decrease in workforce participants, digs into the data, and looks at how recruiters can attract untapped pools of candidates and help get people back into work.

We have a numbers issue in the UK and if you are a recruiter you’ll undoubtedly be highly aware of this. Jobs, although falling (WaveTrackR data recorded a 3% fall in February compared to the monthly 2022 average), remain above pre-pandemic numbers and yet we have fewer people in the workforce than before the pandemic. I’m no mathematician but that results in a problematic calculation. More jobs + fewer workers/candidates = recruitment challenges. There are a number of reasons for this workforce shrinkage, and some are beyond the control of the individual recruiter but there are things that employers and recruiters can do to help people back into the workforce and potentially into your jobs.

The Institute for Employment Studiesfound that there were 600,000 fewer workers in 2022 compared to 2019 and the Bank of England forecasts that the British workforce may not ever return to pre-pandemic levels. Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG, has flagged skills shortages and decreasing workforce participation as two structural issues that “dominate the longer-term risks to the UK outlook.” So why are there fewer people in the workforce and what can recruiters do to help get more people back into jobs?

What are the reasons behind the workforce shrinkage?

There are a number of reasons for the UK’s workforce to have shrunk over the past few years. The double whammy of the pandemic and Brexit meant that we lost thousands of EU workers, the majority of whom never returned. During the pandemic an increasing number of workers in the 50-65 age bracket took early retirement. Some have begun to trickle back into the jobs market to ease the financial burden caused by the rise in the cost of living but have found barriers to employment. The huge (and rising) cost of childcare is forcing a growing number of working mothers out of the workforce, at great detriment to the overall economy. There has also been a rise in people becoming economically inactive (not working or actively looking for work) due to long-term illness, largely a product of increased NHS waiting times.

Barriers to working

Whilst not every reason for the workforce shrinkage can be tackled by recruiters – for example, government reforms would make it easier for overseas workers to gain employment in the UK when businesses are struggling to recruit locally and more needs to be done on a governmental level to help with the cost and availability of childcare – there are many things that recruiters can do to help ease the consequences of fewer people in the job market. Some might consider re-entering (or actively want to enter) the jobs market if various barriers to working were lifted. For example, in a survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), just four in ten managers said they would consider hiring someone aged 55-64, dropping to 18% for those over 65. Helping clients to see the huge benefits of skills and experience in older workers would open up a vast pool of talented candidates. Making work more flexible could also help not just older workers who might have caring responsibilities but many others such as parents (particularly mothers) and those with disabilities.

What recruiters can do

Word your job adverts carefully

Do not merely cut and paste the job description when creating a job advert. Don’t overwhelm candidates with a long list of requirements. The Wave Recruitment Trends Report for 2023 has found that 250-300 words is the sweet spot for job adverts – ads with that word count range result in the highest number of applications. Use inclusive language and only include absolute essentials in terms of skills and experience. What can be learnt on the job or with training? Writing a long list of required skills, qualifications and experience will deter some candidates so talk to your clients about what is wholly necessary for the job and what can instead be balanced by the right soft skills.

Widen your reach with a mix of job boards

The big generalist job boards have huge reach so they certainly deserve a place in your job board spend but some niche sites have wider appeal to untapped talent such as older workers or working mothers. Job boards such as 2to3days, which champions flexible working for women, enable largely working mothers to pursue their careers and companies to hire under-represented talent. Others aim to connect over-50s with age-inclusive employers, or help those with disabilities find career opportunities with companies that understand the benefits of a more diverse workforce. There are a vast number of niche job boards out there that will help you to reach a more diverse pool.

Given the Wave Recruitment Trends Report for 2023 has found that the two job boards supplying the highest average number of applications per job in 2022 are niche, it makes sense to add niche boards to your mix. That doesn’t mean adopting the spray and pray approach – job posts should still be targeted – but targeting under-represented demographics with inclusive jobs can help to increase the number of quality applications you receive.

Encourage clients to consider flexible working

Whether the role can be part-time or job shared, offer flexible hours, be worked remotely or hybrid, or include some other form of flexibility (there are myriad options), there is no doubt that flexibility can sell a role. Not only will a greater number of candidates be interested, the ability to work flexibly will make a role not just more appealing to those with caring duties and those with disabilities, it could make it possible for many. The recent government reforms to childcare were a start but won’t come into effect immediately and fall somewhat short of what most parents need.

Flex in any form will therefore make it easier to help the huge number of women who could contribute to the economy back into work. A win for employers and recruiters, a win for candidates that would struggle to do a 9-5 in an office. However, although data from the Wave Recruitment Trends Report for 2023 shows that jobs advertising flexible working increased by nearly 100-fold from early 2020 to 2022, demand still outstrips supply. Timewise’s Flexible Jobs Index found that while nine in ten people want to work flexibly, and five in ten currently do, only three in ten permanent jobs are advertised as such.

Work to reduce bias

It is human nature to be drawn to people that look, sound and act like us, which can sometimes result in unconscious bias affecting who recruiters shortlist and clients hire. This can also be a conscious choice. A survey by global non-profit Generation found that employers in several countries, including the UK, preferred to hire staff under the age of 45 as they “represented a better cultural fit”. However, all employers surveyed agreed that older employees performed just as well as younger ones.

‘Culture fit’ used to be a standard part of screening candidates – ‘will they fit into the culture of the company?’ became an important measurement – but is increasingly being viewed as a concept that is inherently prone to biases and leads to the rejection of candidates that would otherwise be a good fit for a role. Bias – whether conscious or unconscious – can be a huge stumbling block to shortlisting available (and qualified) candidates and therefore something recruiters need to be incredibly mindful of.

Offer training and skills building

We are in the midst of a skills shortage in the UK and that is proving to be yet another barrier, both to those trying to find work and to those trying to recruit. A recent report on current talent shortages by Manpower Group has shown that the proportion of employers facing hiring problems has leapt from 35% in 2019 to 80% in 2023 – the highest percentage since 2006. The report found that skills shortages were a huge factor. One way to tackle that is to not solely look for candidates with every skill on the brief but to talk to your clients about offering training and skills building as part of the job.

Long-term investment in talent

The recruitment mindset is shifting with the shifting challenges in the market. Given the current skills shortage, recruiters need to be working where possible on long term recruitment needs. They should be assessing a business’ needs not just now but over the next year and beyond. Michael Stull, director at Manpower Group UK, words it well: “Just in time hiring does not work any more, just in case hiring is more the mantra.” That means recruiting skilled workers when you find them, investing in staff to address the skills gap in the long term. It’s proactive rather than reactive recruitment.

The workforce shrinkage in the UK may be permanent and at the same time we have an ageing workforce and an ongoing childcare crisis. Finding talented candidates has become harder, however there are still thousands of people who are currently out of work but do want to join the workforce. Key to tapping into broad and diverse talent pools is to highlight your clients’ working cultures and practices that support workers at different stages of their lives so that the company and the role is truly inclusive. Flexible working options, a focus on health and wellbeing, opportunities for re-skilling and training, will all help to encourage talented individuals to apply for your jobs.


This article was originally posted on ukrecruiter.co.uk on the 4th of April 2023