Unfilled job vacancies – are the over ‘50s the only answer?

Paul Gutherson of NDTi has been doing a little bit of digging around to try and get underneath the headlines screaming at us that there are approximately 1.3 million unfilled job vacancies… and that this is all down to people over the age of 50 rushing to retire.

Get the “economically inactive over 50s” back into work and suddenly we can solve one of our economy’s biggest single current problems. But is there any real substance to this claim, or is it just one of those things that looks like it is related because coincidentally, the number of people aged 50 – 64 who “retired” is roughly the same at 1.2 million?

Unfortunately, my little bit of digging around probably raises more questions than answers…

Is there REALLY a mass exodus of people over 50 leaving the labour market?

DWP data on the economic status of people over the age of 50 would suggest that the “great retirement” as it has been dubbed is a false narrative. Between 2020 and 2021, the employment rate of people aged between 50 and 64 did not change significantly; yes, it fell, but by less than 1%. Not a mass exodus.

People are not leaving the labour market significantly earlier in their lives either – between 2020 and 2021, the age at which people exited the labour market went down. Still, it remained above 65 for men and 64 for women.

And yes, it is true that 1.2 million people between the ages of 50 and 64 are retired, but the biggest reason for not actively seeking work is being ‘sick, injured or disabled’, with 1.3 million people aged between 50 and 64 giving this as their reason for not working. The issue perhaps is not one of a “great retirement” but more of an inequitable job market that has seen a significant number of people of all ages locked out of it for some time for various reasons.

What kind of jobs are unfilled?

ONS data for April to July 2022 suggests that many of the jobs available are in “accommodation and food service activities”. So, they are in what might be considered low-paid, insecure work.

And the industry with the highest growth rate (though a low overall number) in vacancies was “electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply”. Might this growth in vacancies be linked in any way to companies changing contracts of employment and pushing people out of the industry?

There is a growth in vacancies across all sectors, so perhaps the question that needs to be asked is what makes a job attractive – not only to the 50 to 64 age group but to all age groups, including those looking for their first job and mid-life career changers?

Of significant concern is the number of vacancies in “Human health & social work activities”, rising from 138,000 in Apr-June 2019 to 214,000 in Apr-June 2022.

How different is this from the pre-pandemic labour market?

In April to June 2022, the total number of vacancies was 498,400 (62.6%) higher than the January to March 2020 pre-pandemic level. As I have already said, the largest increase in vacancies is in “accommodation and food service activities” up 91,000 (107.1%).

I think it is interesting that there has been a fall in the number of self-employed people from pre-pandemic levels, with 600,000 fewer people self-employed than in December 2019. I haven’t found any age profile data for self-employed people but wonder if this is a result of “consultants” or self-employed “tradespeople” closing down their businesses during the pandemic?

We need to understand this trend more.

What kind of company are the unfilled jobs in?

Most of the vacancies are in larger businesses employing more than 50 people. So, it is big business that is looking for people. Are these bigger businesses offering flexibility in the workplace, age-friendly and carer-friendly working conditions? What can be done to help businesses adapt to the needs of people looking for work rather than people having to fit with business?

Who is out there to fill the jobs?

Again, according to the ONS, there is only one unemployed person out there for every vacancy – this is a record low. But this no doubt masks massive regional variations – the question is, are the unfilled vacancies in areas with very few unemployed people or are there large numbers of vacancies in places with a big pool of supply waiting for work? These are different problems that probably require different solutions, but neither will be solved by repeatedly commissioning standard “work programmes”.

According to the DWP, there are 790,000 people aged 50 to 64 actively seeking work. So YES, we absolutely MUST find a way to help these people into work – we need to think creatively about supporting both the people seeking work and potential employers to find each other and to develop reciprocal contracts of employment and support. It is equally important that we find a way to better support the 338,000 young people aged 18-24 who are unemployed into work also. This is NOT an age thing; it is an equity thing!

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