I squeezed, and after two years forcibly locked up in the wardrobe I really mean squeezed, into my dinner suit on Friday night past and joined a few hundred others at the Derry Chamber of Commerce Dinner. Congratulations and thanks to President Dawn McLaughlin and CEO Paul Clancy for a great night but particularly for all the work they’ve done for local business in the last year.
Arriving at the Everglades felt a bit like going to your first school formal. We were all nervous and a wee bit ‘socially distanced’ awkward as we tried to relearn the ropes.
But it was great to be back together again for the night of celebration and licking the business wounds of the past 19 months.
A few things stuck out.
There was a great pride of this place and our people and a collective determination to grow our City and region.
It was also startling to hear every business ask the same question… “where have all the people gone?” Every business has vacancies. Every sector is struggling to recruit from entry to Directors levels.
It’s almost as if during lockdown, when we were distracted by home schooling or trying to make our own bread, that visitors from outside of this planet hovered overhead and beamed the workforce up.
For a city which has for generations struggled with chronic unemployment it’s extraordinary that we appear right now at least to have more jobs than people.
There are explanations, however. For instance, since the Brexit referendum there’s 33% fewer EU 26 nationals in Northern Ireland. That’s 18,000 fewer people who came here and worked in our care and health services and in our factories, hotels and hospitality businesses. In the same period from June 2016 to June 2021 there are 25,000 more people in work.
So, more jobs but fewer workers.
We’re also coming out of Covid restrictions and sectors at home and abroad reopening and winning business. For instance, just this week, Ulster Bank report that manufacturing employment has risen in the last month at the second highest rate on record.
Furlough has been critical to many firms and families, but it had interrupted the usual rhythm in the workforce. That natural birth and death, expansion and contraction of employers and recruitment and retirement of worker just didn’t happen since March 2020. Many feared that the end of the scheme would see a flood of redundancies but that, as yet, hasn’t materialised as employers have found new ways to fund or work with their colleagues to maximise flexibility and retain jobs as certain sectors wait for their market to return. There’s now a challenge for employers. With demand outstripping supply, how do they respond to be more attractive to the talent their business needs to grow?
Pay, conditions, flexibility, investing in the personal and professional growth has never been more important so what will they do to make themselves the employer of choice whilst remaining competitive? Hopefully by the time the suit is dusted off for next year’s Chamber Dinner I’ll both fit into it again and we’ll hear from those employers who have sorted out that conundrum.
Stephen Kelly is CEO of Manufacturing NI.