How to recruit in a hiring crisis

With loads of vacancies and a lack of top candidates, it’s not easy to hire staff right now. We’ve spoken to the experts and got some great advice on how to stand out and get ahead.

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It’s a real ‘buyer’s market’ for labour right now. There are a record number of vacancies, but recruiters across numerous industries are also reporting a lack of qualified candidates, which is massively slowing down the recruitment process.

With so much choice, jobseekers (including the significant numbers that quit their jobs during lockdown in ‘the great resignation’) can afford to be picky, and are looking for roles that give them everything they’re looking for.

So, if you’re a small business, what do you do? To get answers, we’ve spoken to hiring experts and found five key ways your startup can stand out from the crowd and catch the eye of top talent in a challenging jobs market.

What is the ‘hiring crisis’?

In September 2021, these unprecedented past 18 months produced another striking statistic.

According to official figures, the number of UK vacancies hit 1.2 million, the highest number ever recorded.

This was not exclusively due to the pandemic though – the immigration changes that have been brought in following Brexit have encouraged (or forced in some cases) many EU workers to leave the country. These workers have left jobs behind, and there is now a much smaller candidate pool to fill them.

The other key factor is, of course, COVID-19, which has shaped the UK employment market in two key ways.

Firstly, many companies simply couldn’t cope with the economic disruption caused by the national lockdown. Some weren’t eligible for the government support on offer, while for others it simply wasn’t enough support to keep going at the same level. This led to significant job losses, as cash-strapped organisations shed staff. However, as the economy continues to recover, some of these organisations are now hiring again.

Secondly, lockdown caused lots of people to reevaluate their lives. Obviously, that included work and, across the country, people dissatisfied with their current roles quit their jobs in what was quickly dubbed ‘the great resignation’.

These factors drove the rise in vacancies, but with a much smaller candidate pool than in previous years, many recruiters are struggling to fill their available roles.

This is backed up by research from Indeed Flex, which found that 45% of HR directors are struggling to find enough candidates to fill vacancies, and 39% predict further problems in the near future.

In short, it’s the toughest it’s ever been for businesses hiring staff.

Five ways to attract top talent

To find out how small businesses can compete in such a difficult environment, we spoke to hiring experts across the country to find five ways startups can stand out and catch the eye of top candidates.

In short, you need to figure out what’s important to applicants, and how to showcase what your company has to offer.

This planning has never been more important. As Ambitions Personnel managing director Mandy Watson puts it, “putting out a job advert blindly these days is like screaming into the void”.

1. Be Flexible

Recruiting in a hiring crisis - flexible work

No matter who we spoke to, one theme emerged again and again – the huge importance of flexible working.

Having gotten used to the benefits of working from home, few people want to give them up entirely and return to working five days in the office.

For businesses to attract the best talent in the current market, a model of flexible or hybrid working is almost essential

Now that lockdown has been lifted, not everyone wants to work completely remotely either, but what most people are looking for is the flexibility to work how they want, with as much or as little in-office time as they need.

For example, Chris Adcock, the Managing Director of Reed Technology, says that:

“For businesses to attract the best talent in the current market, a model of flexible or hybrid working is almost essential. Calling this out clearly in job adverts will help attract a broader pool of potential candidates from further afield.”

He also notes that data from shows that people using the ‘work from home’ filter are more than twice as likely to apply for a job, and advises that “if they’re looking to attract and retain the best talent, companies need to see flexible, hybrid and remote working as a core part of their offering rather than high-ticket benefits”.

However, giving people the opportunity to work flexibly is not just a box to be ticked on the job ad – it needs to be carefully embedded into the culture of your business.

As Andy Ingham, Senior Vice President for EMEA and APAC at recruitment software company Bullhorn explains, this is not a “set it and forget it” decision:

“One of the big risks involved with implementing a hybrid working model is that employees may feel that people who choose a different way of working are receiving preferential treatment. Working from the office and from home each have different advantages and disadvantages, and perks or benefits in one environment may not have a direct equivalent for the other. It’s a balancing act, but organisations that try to make both experiences great for employees can’t go far wrong.”

He also notes that businesses should regularly update their flexible working policy based on company feedback, and use technology to “foster a trusting, communicative culture where everybody feels connected and information moves frictionlessly”.

2. Tell the story of your business

To stand a decent chance in such a highly competitive market, small businesses and startups need to sell themselves to candidates. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to blow rival companies out of the water financially, but what you can offer is a vibrant professional culture that can help people develop and rapidly improve.

Here’s how Lynsey Skinner, a specialist tech recruiter for Cathedral Appointments, puts it:

“Candidates are looking for progressive companies. They want to work for businesses that are sustainable, work with cutting edge technology and are always thinking two steps ahead.

“Alongside this, they’re drawn to companies that have their progression in mind. Whether it’s through regular training sessions, an open-ended training budget or the 20 percent rule of training (whereby one day a week is used to upskill and learn), showcasing an investment in your people will attract a wide talent pool.”

your ability to recruit is a reflection of the culture of your company

And Vivi Friedgut, the CEO and founder of education fintech company Blackbullion, argues that startups have unique advantages when it comes to recruiting talent:

“Without being clichéd, startups tend to be more obviously mission driven. Endless studies show that the people most fulfilled at work fundamentally share their employer’s values, so that’s a strong starting point.

“We’ve fostered a working culture of flexibility and autonomy but also responsibility. Giving the team ownership of their projects as we expand, and that ability to grow and develop by taking on personal responsibility and owning discrete metrics. People value that sense of inclusion and belonging, of clearly being part of something bigger than themselves.”

This second point is key, because your ability to recruit is a reflection of the culture of your company.

Making sure that there’s a focus on development, autonomy, ownership and fostering an environment where every opinion is valued will not only help you hire top talent but also retain it, saving you lots of money in the long run. So, make sure you regularly get honest feedback from your existing employees (this can be both anonymous and open) on what they like and don’t like about how your business operates.

Finally, Wendy McDougall, CEO of recruitment tech company Firefish, argues that for younger candidates, growth and personal development prospects are crucial:

“Employers should be mindful of the fact that one of the key motivators for Gen Z, which makes up 40% of the workforce, is the opportunity for growth and personal development.

“If prospective employers can help candidates visualise their career with a certain business, they will be far more motivated to apply; businesses can do this, for example, through stories of team members who started at the bottom and worked their way through the ranks.”

So, make sure you sell your company and how prospective candidates can fit into its vision.

3. Offer perks (and support mental health)

Recruiting in a hiring crisis - mental health

If you can’t compete in terms of pure finances, then offering perks (like gym discounts or social events) can be a great way to catch the eye of candidates.

In fact, a recent survey by Indeed Flex found that non-financial perks have actually now overtaken pay rises as the number one incentive employers are using to attract new recruits.

According to the survey, the most commonly offered perk is private health insurance, while other common benefits include flexible working hours, duvet days (holiday days in addition to normal leave), childcare arrangements and private dental insurance.

non-financial perks have overtaken pay rises as the number one incentive employers are using to attract new recruits

Another area that’s rapidly surging up the agenda for potential employees is mental health support.

And small businesses can really lead the way here, as Matt Peachey, Vice President and General Manager EMEA at database management SME EDB, illustrates:

“Mental health support is among the top demands of employees, and companies must look into getting more employees and potential candidates to feel comfortable talking about needing time off to disconnect. Companies are starting to talk about it, but living it is still a work in progress.

“Employees are likely to be drawn towards initiatives that put mental health support first. At EDB we offer compulsory wellness days, where we reward employees with a day off once a month for them to step away from work and recharge. In addition to this, we have no-meeting Fridays every week to help ease the pressure on employees caused by Zoom fatigue. 

“We also host weekly guided meditation sessions on Thursdays, where meditation and yoga professionals deliver desktop sessions to employees. Finally, we give employees access to a mental health application to help them build resilience and get the clinical support they need when they need it.”

Again, this is not a carrot that should be used to lure potential employees but rather something that needs to be carefully implemented at all levels of the business. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, and you need to consult with your employees to work out what they actually need and to foster a culture where mental health is discussed openly and constructively.

4. Make time to hire properly

When you’re busy running a small business, it’s easy to think of hiring staff as something that has to be squeezed in around your ‘real’ job, or that tasks like writing a job description can be handed off to the most junior member of staff.

However, in such a competitive market, you simply can’t afford to think like that. Instead, think of the time you spend on the hiring process as an investment in the future of your business – do it properly, and you could enjoy that success for years to come.

While it might seem counterintuitive, Emma Diamond, the founder and Managing Director of Red Diamond Recruitment, explains that setting time aside for recruitment will be far more efficient and quicker in the long run:

think of the time you spend on the hiring process as an investment in the future of your business

“Recruitment can be a time-consuming process and, if you want to fill a position quickly, it is important that you set dedicated time aside for the process. Either clear some time in your own diary, or delegate to someone else, allowing them time for the recruitment process.

“Setting dedicated time will help to make the process as efficient as possible and keep the rest of your time productive and on task.”

Remember, any job ad you put out is going to be competing with hundreds of others, so you need something distinctive and attention grabbing in order to attract top talent. And be especially conscious of potential hiring blind spots that could limit the breadth of candidates you may typically consider.

5. Hire young

When hiring, the obvious choice is always to go with the more experienced candidate – after all, their advantages are clear and they will be on the shortlist of most employers hiring in your sector.

However, if you’re not able to secure these in-demand candidates, then looking to younger, less experienced alternatives can be a great solution.

Young people are quick learners, they bring new energy and perspective, and are effectively a ‘blank slate’ for your company

In fact, they might even be a better long-term fit for your business, as Salvatore Nigro, the CEO of employment education nonprofit JA Europe, outlines:

“When looking to hire for roles which require specialist skills and knowledge, young people are key. Young people are quick learners, they bring new energy and perspective and without a huge amount of previous experience, are effectively a ‘blank slate’, meaning your firm can develop a workforce specifically trained to meet your specialised needs and culture.

“Many young people will have grown up around technology, giving them a more natural affinity to tech and a better ability to apply and understand different technologies, quicker than other generations in the workforce.”

However, recruiting young people requires a different approach. In most cases, you can’t simply look at qualifications or previous roles, but instead need to really engage with candidates to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Only then can you work out which of them (with a bit of training and support) can be moulded into effective employees.

Once again, if you’re pursuing this strategy, then it needs to be implemented throughout the whole company and not just at the hiring stage.

You need to make sure that you have a clear onboarding process and that your more experienced members of staff are eager to pass on their knowledge. You also need to assign them a supportive manager who will help them overcome any difficulties they face.

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that this is a difficult time to hire new employees, and candidates have their pick of numerous roles.

However, with the help of recruitment experts, we’ve identified five ways that small businesses and startups can stand out from the crowd when recruiting:

1. Be flexible
2. Tell the story of your business
3. Offer perks (and support mental health)
4. Make time to hire properly
5. Look to youth

Most of these are not quick fixes – and they’re not meant to be.

The businesses that do recruitment well are the ones that devote time and energy to the process and recognise that a huge part of hiring staff is ensuring that you have a great workplace culture to offer, which can then be promoted in your job adverts. It’s no easy thing for a startup founder to oversee directly – when your business is at the right stage of its growth, appointing a Chief Human Resources Officer may be a smart move.

Always remember you’re not just trying to get a new employee – this is not a box that just needs to be ticked.

You’re trying to find someone who will play a key role in helping your business to move forward – someone who will grow and develop alongside your company.

And the better your culture, the more likely your new hire is to stay, which will save you from having to go through the whole process again for a while.

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Written by:
Alec is Startups’ resident expert on politics and finance. He’s provided live updates on the budget, written guides on investing and property development, and demystified topics like corporation tax, accounting software, and invoice discounting. Before joining, he worked in the media for over a decade, conducting media analysis at Kantar Media and YouGov, and writing a wide variety of freelance pieces.

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