Myth of reality: has the Great Resignation happened?

Back in December, I looked at the media hype around the predicted Great Resignation. The media pointed to a vast swathe of the UK labour market finally making a move to a new role after the uncertainty of the pandemic (which came on the back of uncertainty around Brexit).

I thought it’d be interesting, now we’re halfway through the year, to take a look at whether the Great Resignation turned into reality and what it’s like on the ground of the jobs market.

What’s going on in the labour market?
Each month I release an update on the state of play in the recruitment market. The data I use comes from 100’s of businesses across the UK and is commissioned by the REC (the recruitment industry governing body) and KPMG, so is both relevant and close to real time.

Over recent months, there has been a very consistent picture: historically high levels of job vacancies and not enough candidates moving into these roles. It’s what we call a tight labour market. Employers have been managing exceptionally well, but it’s not been without challenge.

Unemployment is so low that the number of candidates per vacancy becomes very low, there’s also a shortage of candidates due to Brexit. It’s easy to call this an effect of the Great Resignation.

However, as is often the case with a media-adopted buzz phrase, the Great Resignation is difficult to pin down. First, there’s an issue of what it’s relating to. Different media outlets use the phrase in different ways. The most common belief was that it was going to be a large exodus of people leaving the workforce in the wake of the pandemic.

Additionally, there’s a timing issue. The phrase was used largely too late, talking about what was to come, when in reality we saw the height of the Great Resignation considerably sooner.

So was there a Great Resignation?
When we look back at the data, it’s a mixed picture. There was definitely a huge spike in resignations earlier in the pandemic. We saw a large number of people leaving their roles particularly at the end of 2020 and through 2021. However, for the most part, these individuals didn’t up and leave the workforce altogether. There has been a notable exception to this: over-50s taking early retirement.

There’s also the reality that it’s been easy to blame labour shortages on the Great Resignation. We know that pretty much every employer in every sector is finding it harder to find new recruits than usual. It’s been easy to say it’s because of the Great Resignation, when in fact, that is only part of the picture. Many of these recruitment difficulties actually existed before the pandemic but have been compounded, or are only now becoming particularly evident.

It’s an inconsistent picture
It’s also worth noting that the picture isn’t consistent. It’s easy to think the Great Resignation affects all sectors and all types of roles equally. It doesn’t. It’s rare that a blanket situation like this occurs. But additionally, it’s also a different picture for different sectors of society.

In terms of the labour market now, this inconsistency is quite evident. For example, we have definitely seen a greater number of people taking early retirement due to the pandemic (although some are finding their way back into jobs). Interestingly, more women than men have been looking for a new role, and it’s believed that this is largely due to burnout on the back of the pandemic when many women felt they were ‘doing it all’.

It’s also sector specific and that’s not unusual. For example, during the Financial Crisis of 2008, we saw greater relative numbers leave banking and financial roles. Now, as a result of the pandemic, large numbers left hospitality, travel and retail, hence these sectors are experiencing the biggest shortages now. Workers in these sectors left during the pandemic and found other sectors to work in.

It’s also worth noting that the picture isn’t consistent geographically either. First, at a national level, it’s difficult to say there has definitely been a Great Resignation in the UK. However, the US data shows that it’s been a different story over the pond.

That’s not to say we’re exempt from regional variations. Unfortunately, the pandemic has created a greater gulf in existing inequalities and this often adds to the regional picture. Data shows that men in high-employment areas are proving slower to find their way back into the workforce. Remote working and our shift to hybrid working following the working from home time is also impacting the bigger picture.

So, does the Great Resignation exist in the UK?
There are ways in which the Great Resignation has existed in the UK. We’ve seen more people retire. We are seeing certain sectors experiencing greater numbers leaving compared to entering the workforce. But is it due to the pandemic alone?

That’s where I believe it’s a more mixed picture. The pandemic stored up some resignations. So, yes, it’s not unsurprising that people that would have resigned during the pandemic but didn’t feel safe to do so, have been more inclined to do so in 2022.

However, these resignations would have happened anyway, they are just happening in greater numbers now. It’s also likely, looking at the data, that even these numbers aren’t as high as we would have expected.

Additionally, there are ways in which a Great Resignation has definitely happened. Larger numbers of older workers retiring early has definitely caused a difficult picture in executive level roles.

However, we need to be careful not to blame it all on the pandemic. For example, many shortages are in fact due to Brexit and a shortage of European workers. Furthermore, skills shortages existed in many sectors prior to the pandemic and many of us warned about these well before Covid became a household word.

Is it perhaps a Great Re-evaluation?
So, if the Great Resignation hasn’t happened in quite the way the media led us to believe it would, does that mean that there’s been no change?

That’s where I strongly think there has been a huge shift. Few of us are the same after the last few years and our approach to work has radically shifted. Not many could have imagined a workplace with the levels of home and hybrid working that we see now. Many of us are rethinking our understanding of work, and how it fits our values and aspirations.

That’s where employers need to take note. Knowing how to attract and retain talent that is re-evaluating how work works, in a climate of skills shortages, is essential to a strong business model in the future. Employers that understand candidates are re-evaluating their work life will secure the best talent.

Keep an eye out for our next article which will be published in early July. In the meantime, keep abreast of industry news and discussion on LinkedIn with our short burst videos/posts. You can sign up to the First Executive Newsletter on our website to keep on top of the latest news, trends and talent planning within UK Based Engineering & Manufacturing. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook

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