Q&A discussion with GMCC on Bridging the Skills Gap

Sharon Seville, Stockport Local President for Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce has been appointed Board Director at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC).

Sharon talks to Simon Cronin about the challenges and opportunities facing the recruitment sector as it deals with the aftermath of Covid and Brexit and the current skills and labour shortages that are challenging economic growth.

Having been in the recruitment sector since 1993 and a member of REC since 1997, Sharon Seville is clearly a passionate advocate for her industry, and sees an opportunity for the REC, as the voice of the industry, to be seen as ‘the’ professional body representing recruiters among the wider business community. Through her vast experience in the recruitment industry and, as the owner/director of First Executive Recruitment based in Stockport, her focus will include ensuring the needs of individual members of the REC are catered for as well as the corporate members in a challenging recruitment environment that impacts us all.

Talking about her appointment to the REC Board, Sharon says: “I’m really looking to see how the REC can support recruitment businesses going forward because that in turn, will help support the wider economy that needs our services now more than ever. Recruitment is an industry that contributes c£39 billion a year to the UK economy and the UK has around 30,000 recruitment businesses, so the value that members provide to both candidates and clients is substantial.”

“When a recession occurs, the first industry to contract is recruitment, so it’s a harsh industry at times. However, when a recession subsides, recruitment is also one of the first sectors to bounce back.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many larger, established recruitment companies battened down the hatches and laid off staff. Like so many in other sectors, those individuals have gone on to create their own boutique recruitment businesses, servicing employers in varying sectors as specialist or generalists.

Proactively responding to change

The role of the REC has always been to support and guide but as important, we must proactively respond to the changes in the industry, encourage engagement, and provide the support and guidance that is needed for these new recruitment businesses so that they can go on to service their clients’ needs in a capable, supported and professional way. Being a board member of a governing body for our industry gives me the opportunity to encourage new thinking, raise the profile to new members and help make some strategic change to develop a robust service offering.”

As an individual member of the REC, Sharon is ideally placed to highlight what smaller businesses like her own need. “I hope to influence and help make the changes within the REC to make membership more attractive to the growing number of independent recruitment businesses newly established across the UK.”

“Recruitment is about building relationships, understanding the needs of a business, a high level of trust and going that extra mile. Being a member of a professional body, helps with that trust and capability to deliver.”

“A lot of these skills are interweaved with what we do in the Chamber. We get to understand a business and

what they need, then support them where and however we can. The correlation between what the REC and the Chamber do to support businesses is what I love too. Coupled this with what I do to help businesses in my own company, it seems to be my calling!”

Sharon has seen dramatic changes over the many years she has worked as a professional recruiter and head-hunting professional in the Engineering and Manufacturing industry. “When I first started in recruitment there wasn’t the reliance or connecting with people via technology that we see today,” she recalls. “It was all very much the old-fashioned way of picking up the phone and speaking to an actual human being. Those habits still exist for me. Of course, I use new technology to its best advantage, and it supports my efforts very well, but ultimately you can’t beat speaking to a client or candidate in person. Today’s video technology is a godsend.”

In her early years in recruitment, Sharon would often have a candidate sitting in front of her whilst she called potential employers, trying to get them a job. Her ability to ask the right questions and understand what a candidate wanted was vital in this setting, as there was nowhere to hide. Those early experiences have stood her in good stead and convinced her that dealing with people on a human level is still vitally important to everyone’s success.

Skill shortages forcing a change in traditional recruitment processes

Over her career Sharon has seen a few recessions, comparing the impact of those periods she says the combination of Brexit and Covid, coupled with pre pandemic skills shortages, is causing never seen before, new and unique challenges. The impact being employers will have to change both the way they source, attract, and recruit new employees and, the way they treat and work to retain existing staff.

“With our help, employers struggling to recruit are starting to recognise the fact that in today’s recruitment market of labour and skill shortages, they need to review their traditional recruitment process as well as their approach and style. They need to work harder to sell their companies to potential employees, and this is a significant shift for a lot of organisations. If they don’t, they may find themselves left behind” she explains.

“Increasingly employers are having to look at what the absolute ‘non-negotiables’ are when deciding on hiring, then work out how they can skills train for everything else. With labour and skills shortages rife, attitude should come before skill, because invariably skill can be trained, it just takes more time. With this in mind, workforce planning becomes even more essential.

The benefit of working with an accredited, reputable recruitment business like mine, is that our role in this process ensures there is some genuine interest and connection between employer and potential employee before they’ve even met. My job is based on successful outcomes for all parties. So, I can’t talk someone into a job, or persuade an employer to employ someone, because if I did, it’s unlikely the relationship will last (between all three of us!) Trust is business critical.

A professional recruiter’s job is to be a knowledgeable partner to an employer, a trusted expert to a candidate, and ultimately have both their needs and wants front and centre when delivering outcomes. You get this right and your wants and needs will automatically follow.”

Sharon says the skills shortage is particularly acute in her specialist area, the Manufacturing and Engineering sector. Already suffering from an ageing workforce and a failure to train the next generation of workers, it’s been hit hard. She explains: “It’s been the perfect storm. Brexit has had an impact that’s true, yet even before Brexit the Manufacturing and Engineering sector was already suffering a massive skills shortage.”

“I’ve been saying for the last 10 years we are going to come unstuck if we don’t start training and developing people now. With a growing, ageing population retiring, some earlier than planned due to COVID, we need to grab their skills and experience and pass them on to the next generation. As far back as the 90’s, Modern Apprenticeships were introduced in response to government concerns about skills shortages, so this is nothing new. However, apprenticeships fell out of favour as their reputation wasn’t great. Although the new apprenticeships are excellent these days, and I would say essential, we’re still left with this legacy skills gap, and the problems foreseen are starting to come home to roost.”

Sharon points out that in the past, UK employers, could meet their labour needs with EU workers. Brexit and the pandemic have led to “a mass exodus” of Europeans from the UK, exasperated by Covid which in turn has created a “lost million” of people who decided to step away from the being economically active in the UK labour market.

“We’ve now got a skills shortage and a labour shortage,” she warns. “This could stifle our economy because we’re not able to grow it. It’s a huge, huge issue and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Focus on retaining existing staff

In Sharon’s view, this skills shortage means that employers will have to focus far more on retaining existing staff as they can no longer rely on a pool of talent to replace workers who decide to leave. “Retention of staff is absolutely business critical” she says. “First and foremost, employers have to look at retention of their existing workforce.

They’ve got to look after staff and they’ve got to try and develop and support their staff as much as possible in order to keep them and the investment already made in them.”

Sharon also believes hybrid working is here to stay so employers need to be more open to hybrid working and flexible in their approach. She says the hybrid question is one of the first things people ask her when looking for a new role, along with benefits on offer.

“There is a real change in the questions that potential employees are asking compared with three years ago she says. “That’s because the importance of work life balance has been highlighted more during the pandemic. They want decent holidays, and they want the option of working from home part of the time. I think employers who only provide statutory minimum holidays and don’t offer hybrid working could struggle and be seen as less desirable when compared with employers who are.”

When it comes to retaining existing employees, Sharon points out that it is often too late for an employer to offer more money to keep an employee from leaving when they hand in their notice. Which is why it’s so important to work on retention of staff sooner rather than later.

“Statistics show that the majority of employees who retract their resignation after their employer offers them more money to stay, will still leave within 12 months anyway. It’s easy to forget ‘why’ you want to leave a job when more money is on the table. In my experience, people might say it’s all about the money but in reality, it often isn’t. The main reason people leave businesses is down to the way they are managed. Invariably, people join businesses because of people, and people leave businesses because of people.”

Despite the challenges facing the recruitment sector, Sharon believes there are great opportunities for those companies who have modernised their approach to how they recruit staff, and how they see the evolved ‘partner’ relationship between them and a professional recruiter.

“That doesn’t mean there won’t be those companies preferring to remain working with the traditional, old transactional style of recruitment, where a recruiter only gets paid if they fill a role. The difficulty here is that in such a challenging market, this kind of recruitment is no longer fit for purpose, for either party. Recruiters will be spread too thin because there are less guarantees of revenue and so will be less able to dedicate more time to a role they are not certain will reap a return on their own investment.”

“Recruitment today should be about partnerships, and employers are valuing working this way as they are finding they get much better results as a consequence.”

A big part of this changing relationship with employers involves ensuring recruiters are seen as a valuable professional in their sector. As a board director of the REC, Sharon is keen to build the professional image of her sector and the positive role it plays in the wider economy.

“If a financial advisor hasn’t got a qualification, you wouldn’t want them to look after your hard-earned money. In my view it’s the same in recruitment. If you’re qualified as a recruitment professional and you’re a member of an associated professional body so you adhere to an ethical code of practice, there is a level of protection, professionalism and standard your clients can expect to receive.”

Recruitment is a profession that when done well, can add huge value to a business. That’s the message we want to get out there.”

Sharon Seville (Fellow REC)

Engineering & Manufacturing Executive Search Specialist



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