Great Resignation vs staff shortages: HR tackles the UK's talent paradox

Just when you thought lockdown was the great leveller of this generation, 2021 kicks up a talent crisis leaving no sector, and seemingly no employer, unmarked.

Brewing long before the pandemic, the UK’s talent crisis erupted this year with staff shortages closing restaurants, leaving supermarket shelves empty, driving up thousands in retention bonuses and threatening a Turkey-less Christmas.

At the same time as a mass talent shortage though, the UK is amidst a talent exodus. The Great Resignation seen in the US has now come to British soil, with the number of people leaving their jobs at an all-time high.

Between July and September this year alone, an estimated 391,000 Brits quit their job for a new one, according to the Labour Force Survey

So why are employers are struggling to fill vacancies when more people than ever are on the move? This talent paradox is inspiring change for HR. Recruitment and retention, by necessity, are getting more creative.

“Even if they were doing really great things and had developed a great recruitment and retention strategy, everybody’s had to look at those policies again,” states Kate Shoesmith, deputy CEO at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC).

“Expectations have changed, the market has changed, and it’s going to change again.”

While many forecasters believe the job market will stabilise somewhat in 2022, it is still anyone’s guess when the talent crisis will end, and the complex and countless factors affecting talent shortages are likely to be a life’s work for some HR directors.

Here we look at some of the ways recruitment and retention are evolving in an attempt to get on top of the talent crisis.


War for talent in numbers

(Number of vacancies per 100 employees by sector)


July - September 2020

July - September 2021

Accommodation and food services



Information and communications 



Financial and insurance



Services sector






Human health and social work



Arts, entertainment, recreation








Out with the old

Regardless of the challenges faced when it comes to skills shortages, one thing that HR teams can do to boost supply is widen the net of where they look for potential candidates.

KPMG for years has hailed skills as the new currency, highlighting the need to consider people’s abilities rather than specific sector experience and qualifications. While a wholesale move to skills over experience has not happened yet, the past year has pushed some employers further towards this concept and look to other sectors, outside the usual, for staff.

To meet rising demand, residential and nursing care provider Sunrise Senior Living looked to inactive sectors, like travel, for staff.

Sharon Benson who joined Sunrise as HR director in January 2020, says it has been a lesson learned: “It’s proved you don’t have to have previous care experience. We’ve had some amazing people come from other sectors.”

Benson and the team were able to pivot recruitment by introducing values-based behavioural questions at the screening stage of interview and centralising the process. At the time, staff in the contact centre, initially there to do sales, were redeployed to help with centralisation. Though these sales roles have now returned, the process has created a new permanent candidate screening role.

She adds: “We improved our retention; we improved our bank-to-permanent conversion by 120%. COVID was just a catalyst to affect change that we will keep.”

Rather than just a means of hiring better front-line, or more operational staff, Perry Timms, founder of People and Transformational HR, argues that a skills-based recruitment practice, like the type practised at Sunrise, could benefit all manner of roles. What HR would need for this though is to really understand where their skills gaps are. This is not a new concept says Timms, but precisely pinpointing skills gaps is not as well-practised as it could be in the profession.

He says: “It has to be a coalesced effort, so managers have got to stop looking at HR saying: ‘Build a job description like this and get us some people,’ that’s not how it works. And HR has got to stop inflicting that on people saying: ‘Here are your roles and that’s all you’ve got.’

“It needs something that sits a little bit above that, where managers and HR can continually tune [their talent needs] under workforce strategy and planning – it exists, but people don’t play strongly enough into it.

“There’s an operations strategy, and then there’s HR responding to it, and this bit should sit in the middle, and it should be active, almost weekly, so that you manage your people and your intelligence about your workload and skills in weekly sprints.”

As well as looking further afield to fill skills gaps (once they have been identified) HR can look to ‘grow their own’ candidates with dedicated training academies.

In the past year XPO Logistics, for example, has invested more in training and commercial truck driver licences. Online retail giant Asos similarly has tech hubs in different locations around the world to help build its talent pipeline. The first UK hub outside of London will be in Belfast, scheduled to open in early 2022 and tipped to be costing the firm £14 million.

Timms has been advising on the creation of training academies for clients struggling to find the skills they need. Though it can be hard for recruitment teams to justify spending on them due to the upfront cost, Timms argues bigger-picture vision is needed: “That’s the problem, you’re looking at it too short term. You should think this will mature in five years’ time and we’ll actually make money out of a people offer.”

Closer collaboration with would-be competitors can streamline the process, though that too can be difficult to sell. He adds: “People don’t play as nicely as they should, and it’s like – why not? It’s not a competitive advantage you’re trying to create, it’s a professional need.”


This is part one of a two part piece first published in the November/December 2021 issue of HR magazine. Check back tomorrow for part two.

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