UK job vacancies hit record high amid worker shortages

LONDON (AP) — Job vacancies in the U.K. rose to a record high of nearly 1.2 million, official figures showed Tuesday, a further sign that the British economy is experiencing worker shortages in an array of sectors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Following weeks of long lines at gas stations as motorists struggle to fill up their cars amid a shortage of truck drivers to deliver the fuel and empty shelves at supermarkets, the Office for National Statistics pointed to shortages across the whole economy, including hospitality and transport.

It’s become increasingly evident in recent weeks that the British economy is experiencing shortages of labor, and not just of truck drivers. The causes are widespread but it’s clear that the combination of Brexit and the pandemic prompted many EU workers to leave the U.K. and head home.

The Institute for Employment Studies estimates that the U.K. has a shortfall of 900,000 workers between the number of people in the labor market now and what would have been expected based on pre-pandemic trends.

“This is being driven by large falls in participation for older people and young people, alongside continued wide employment gaps for disabled people and those with health conditions,” said IES director Tony Wilson.

Though there’s a shortfall in workers, the statistics agency said the number of workers on payroll in the U.K. has risen above the level that existed before the coronavirus pandemic struck more than a year and a half ago.

The economic recovery since the lifting of most coronavirus restrictions has boosted hiring, with the number of workers on payroll up by 207,000 between August and September to a record 29.2 million. That’s 122,000 higher than the level in February 2020, the last month of data before the impact of the pandemic started to be felt.

The increase in hiring and vacancies should help workers returning to the jobs market following the end of a salary support scheme, which the government introduced at the outset of the pandemic to keep a lid on job losses.

Under the Job Retention Scheme, the government paid 80% of the salaries of those workers unable to work because of lockdown measures. The program, which was phased out in recent months came to an end in September. At its peak, it helped support over 11 million people, but the number at its end was a little more than 1 million, with many workers returning to their former jobs following the reopening of the economy.

The agency also found that the U.K.’s rate of unemployment also fell further to 4.5% between June and August, down from 4.6% in the quarter to July.

Wages rose steeply again, with average weekly earnings up 7.2% with bonuses or 6% without bonuses in the three months to August. However, the agency stressed that the figures continue to be skewed by the impact of the pandemic on wages a year ago.

With inflation set to hit 4% in the coming months and productivity levels low, there are worries that wages will soon be running below price rises, further pressuring household incomes at a time when the tax burden is at its highest level in decades.

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