Freezing Recruitment? Chill Your Boots

Julie Jarvis, Managing Director of Specialist Property & Built Environment Recruiter PRS, advises to keep hiring.

After joining national property & built environment recruitment specialists PRS as a trainee in 2000, Julie Jarvis progressed to become the company’s managing director. Reflecting on two decades in the sector, Julie explains why now is the worst time for businesses to put their recruitment plans on hold.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken businesses across all industries to the core, and understandably so. At the time of writing, PwC’s COVID-19 Economic Update stated that GDP growth in 2020 ranged from around -5 per cent to -10 per cent, with ONS revealing that 78 per cent of the UK workforce had been furloughed in temporarily closed businesses.

Such a devastating shock to our economic system has led businesses to put hiring plans on hold in a bid to get costs under control. The knock-on effect can be seen in the Financial Times’ analysis of government website Find a Job, which revealed the number of vacancies as of April 24 had fallen 41 per cent compared with the start of the month.

Despite this, any decent leader will tell you that it’s crucial to continue recruiting through challenging times. In fact, when it comes to economic turbulence and its subsequent effect on talent acquisition, I’ve seen it all before.

History Repeating

Over the last two decades, I’ve worked with a range of businesses in the property & built environment sector, which has weathered its fair share of storms over the years. Of course, the biggest challenge came in the form of the 2008 financial crash, which saw the average UK property’s value plunge by 20 per cent in just 16 months and transactions slump from 1.65 million in the decade up to the crisis to 730,000 in the year to June 2009. The sudden downturn resulted in huge job losses, with many builders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and building services professionals losing their positions.

As with all recessions, there was a period after 2013 of exponential growth. Property prices rocketed as world economies recovered, house-building resumed, and private firms made substantial commercial investments to take advantage of the improved economic conditions.

Despite the property & built environment job market looking bright again, a new challenge took its place that remains today.

Skill Shortages

Skim some of the headlines that dominated the property & built environment press over the last 12 months, and you’ll see repeated messaging around talent shortages. Several factors have driven this, including Brexit uncertainty, concerns about new immigration rules, an ageing and retiring workforce, the threat of IR35 on contingent workers and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many businesses that have put recruitment on hold or made staff redundant expect they’ll be able to pick up where they left off once the lockdown lifts. While for certain sectors this will absolutely be the case, securing talent in property & built environment looks set to be even more challenging than the pre-COVID days.

Home Truths

Right now, there are around 18 roles for every candidate in this sector. Considering it’s a time when organisations have largely put hiring on hold, imagine the situation when businesses start rehiring. As such, companies are advised to do everything they can to lock in talent now, especially when furloughed staff might be exploring other options and those made redundant are preparing to re-enter the workplace.

For organisations with big budgets, it’s straightforward, but what if you’re part of a depleted talent acquisition team where recruitment isn’t on the agenda right now? Reviewing your talent pipelines, retention strategies, and supply chains to ensure they’re robust enough to handle the demands of a post-COVID recruitment desert is a good place to start.

Although the sector couldn’t be more different, we can learn a lot from the burst of the dotcom bubble back in 2001. Despite a veritable feast of gloomy headlines stating that companies were laying off workers in droves, research by HR consultancy Towers Perrin indicated that 73 per cent of affected firms were still hiring top talent and creating retention strategies to keep their best performers.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the success of employers who make recruitment an ongoing business priority. If the 2008 financial crash taught us anything, it was that things get better and markets recover. Of course, we don’t always know when the green shoots of recovery will show themselves, but businesses must do what they can to ensure they’re in a position to rise to the occasion when the time comes.


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