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Many UK workers found to lack job options despite labour shortage

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Many UK workers still have fewer job options open to them than before the coronavirus pandemic, despite the acute labour shortages seen in a handful of relatively low-paid areas, research has shown.

Official data show more than 1m posts vacant across the economy, with industry groups calling for temporary visas to hire overseas workers and the CBI employers’ lobby reporting that three-quarters of businesses saw access to skilled staff as a threat to the UK’s competitiveness.

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But in a report published on Tuesday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the UK remained very far from being a “jobseekers’ paradise”.

The surge in vacancies has been driven by low-paying occupations, where new job openings had risen about 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels by June of this year, the think-tank found.

More than half of this growth in low-paid work was due to the boom in transport and storage jobs, fuelled by the shift to ecommerce. Openings for waiters and bar staff, cleaners and carers made up most of the rest.

Higher-paid service jobs had been slower to recover, the IFS said, especially those often taken by women and graduates — with the market for legal, business and health professionals proving relatively sluggish. Vacancies in mid- and higher-paying occupations had only just returned to pre-pandemic levels by the end of June.

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Xiaowei Xu, economist at the IFS and an author of the report, said that, while labour shortages in certain areas were real, “we should not be misled into thinking that worker power is back”.

For people in many lines of work, job opportunities were still far more restricted than before the pandemic, and competition for the jobs available was fiercer, she added.

The IFS constructed a new measure of the opportunities open to workers, weighted according to the range of roles people from a given occupation would typically consider when they moved job.

It found that job options for nurses and midwives, for example, remained more limited than before the crisis — even though vacancies in their area had been relatively steady — because in the past a third of those who changed jobs moved into sectors such as retail or public administration.

Using this measure, it found that 8m people — a quarter of the workforce — would still find fewer jobs open in occupations relevant to their line of work than before the pandemic.

“Because the new economy does not yet look much like a restored version of the old, the kinds of jobs being advertised are different from the mix of jobs available pre-pandemic,” the report said. “This means that . . . many workers will not recognise the relatively buoyant overall picture.”

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Because many people had been forced to put their careers on hold over the past 18 months, or to take jobs that did not suit them as a stopgap, competition for many openings would also be fiercer, the IFS said.

While drivers or waiters might be able to name their price, teachers and health professionals seeking new jobs would face especially steep odds. Competition would be significantly higher than before the pandemic for almost two-thirds of unemployed jobseekers, the think-tank found.

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