With a shrinking recruitment pool and certain skills in high demand, SMEs face significant challenges recruiting and retaining staff in 2023 and beyond. Sussex Innovation’s HR consultant Monica Beckles outlines some of the challenges ahead, and a range of strategies that business leaders might adopt


Throughout the second half of 2022, my colleagues at Sussex Innovation spoke to the region’s established SMEs about their biggest emerging challenges in the wake of several years of political and social upheaval. Without fail, every business owner we interviewed mentioned some form of obstacle to recruitment. 

There are several larger trends behind this. The drop-off in skilled workers migrating from EU nations following Brexit has impacted the pool of available talent, particularly in the manufacturing, healthcare and hospitality sectors. We have also experienced the far-reaching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, with huge numbers of people furloughed, made redundant or taking leave with long-term ill health. 

The lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 forced many of us to re-evaluate what we want out of our relationship with work, and it was predicted at the time that the workplace might never be the same again. As ‘normal’ life has gradually resumed, the aftereffects of the great resignation are still being felt. 

There has been plenty of Government research released in recent months about ‘economically inactive’ groups – those who are not currently part of the labour market. The Institute for Employment Studies suggests that around 800,000 people left the UK workforce during Covid and are yet to return. 

At Sussex Innovation, we offer insight and consultancy to help businesses broaden and diversify their recruitment strategies. Every sector and every organisation is different, but there are a few common issues we have identified and recommendations that we can make. 

Don’t discount older generations 
Many employers - particularly in sectors dependent on technology – have an unconscious bias towards hiring from younger age groups. However, ONS data suggests that by far the largest group to leave the workforce over the past few years have been people in their 50s and 60s. While there are some emerging fields that naturally skew towards a younger, ‘digital native’ demographic, many of the older generation possess skills and experience that are still in high demand. 

There is a perception that none of this group are actively seeking to rejoin the workforce, but qualitative studies suggest that this might not be entirely true. While many older workers took early retirement during the move towards remote work, a segment of them remain open to new opportunities. The problem is that recruitment strategies are not always targeted towards them. 

Write more inclusive job ads 
It’s not only older recruits who can feel excluded by the marketing of roles. Many job ads cut out a significant portion of their potential audience by not offering a clear diversity and inclusion statement, or even something as simple as using gendered language. 

There is a whole host of reasons why a perfectly suitable candidate may choose not to apply for a role based on first impressions – whether it’s a lack of obvious accessibility for someone with a disability, or provision for minority religious holidays and practices. Take the time to review your ads through different eyes before you publish. 

People living with a disability are an especially underemployed demographic. Research suggests that not only are many roles performed to an equally high standard by disabled employees, but loyalty and motivation tend to be higher among this group than others. A commitment to recruiting people living with a disability and other diverse individuals promotes inclusiveness and empathy among employees, improving workplace culture and customer experience.

What’s the most important part of the role? 
Another reason that job ads pull from a narrow band of potential employees is that they try too hard to describe the ‘perfect’ candidate. Think hard about which skills, experience and aptitudes are essential to the role, which can be learned over time, and which would simply be a bonus. 

For example, many adverts proclaim that the candidate must have “three years’ experience in [industry]”, immediately narrowing down their audience to a very small group. What is it about this experience that is most relevant to the candidate being able to do their job? What industry-specific knowledge could be learnt over time? Could your requirements instead be positioned as “three years’ experience developing [skill]”? 

Do your research 
Review how your competition are recruiting – it’s often easier to spot flaws in someone else’s strategy than it is to notice your own! What are they communicating about themselves, and how can you position yourself differently? 

It’s also an extremely valuable exercise to benchmark what salaries others in your industry are offering for different roles and levels of experience. Are you paying the market rate – and if not, why not? If you can’t afford a senior professional right now, can you present your opening as a junior or graduate level role, and promise to develop their skills with associated pay increases over time.

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