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Jobs & Recruitment COVID-19 Update


26th August 2020

by Amanda McCulloch

Introduction

Coronavirus has distorted my sense of time. Each week in lockdown seems to fly by, yet looking back to late March, when we moved to working from home, that feels like a very long time ago.

Blindsided by the global health pandemic and consequent crash in demand for oil, an optimistic outlook within the oil and gas community at the start of the year mutated into impairments, billion pound losses and capex cuts. Consolidation in the oilfield services sector is considered inevitable and if conditions persist, Oil & Gas UK predicts as many as 30,000 job losses by the end of 2021.

Job Flow & Candidate Enquiries

Enquiries from job seekers have sky-rocketed across our recruitment specialisms, most notably since the Chancellor announced changes to the terms of the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and its ultimate conclusion at the end of October. Already operating fairly leanly, organisations have few cost saving options available to them. Therefore, despite the intentions of the JRS, employee redundancy and contractor terminations have been expedited more quickly than during the downturn of 2015 – 2016. For those who are made redundant but hope to secure work through a personal service company we advise caution due to the changes in IR35 tax regulations effective from April 2021.

Despite the intentions of the JRS, employee redundancy and contractor terminations have been expedited more quickly than during the downturn of 2015 – 2016.

The recruitment industry has been severely impacted and in our own business we transitioned to operating with a smaller team. Since the end of March job flow centred across our Accountancy and Finance, Trades, Engineering and Office Support specialisms. More recently though, our Supply Chain and Contracts specialism has experienced an upturn in recruitment for commercial and contracts management roles, predominantly on a permanent or fixed term contract basis.

Within Accountancy and Finance there has been job diversity across payroll, systems, credit control, financial planning and analysis with employers hiring for interim, contract and permanent staff. Several clients have intimated a review of financial offshoring, which may signal a U-turn on decisions taken during the previous downturn to move transactional accounting processes away from Aberdeen, to international locations.

Conversely, Office Support and Trades recruitment is predominantly temporary in nature. This reflects the national trend reported by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation with hiring intentions for agency workers at its highest level since Q4 2019.

With the oil and gas supply chain under intense pressure our Engineering specialism is experiencing very little service company hiring and has focused on supporting recruitment for operator clients, hiring on a contract basis. On the candidate site, enquiries have been predominately from discipline engineering professionals (Mechanical, Electrical, Instrument, Process), as well as Design Engineers and Draughtspersons / Designers.

At the turn of the year a skills shortage was beginning to pinch in our Trades specialism but this has eased with previously hard to source CNC Machinists and QC Inspectors now readily available.

Looking For A New Job

Experiencing this downturn from an organisational and personal point of view, HR job seekers are pragmatic and realistic, predicting a long haul ahead and the prospect of interim consultancy work to manage redundancy processes and outplacement services later in the year. We anticipate it will remain a difficult employment market for our Office Support candidates too, in particular those seeking reception, front of house or PA work.

Graduates will also lose out. Industry placements, so valuable for gaining work experience, along with graduate schemes, are being rescinded and despite disruption to academic learning it won't be too long before the next graduating cohort joins the highly competitive job market.

On the other hand, the senior job market is much more robust because organisations have prioritised hiring to fill leadership gaps. Permanent appointments focus on short term business resilience, longer term strategy and leadership succession while a rise in interim work is particularly attractive to professionals seeking an agile portfolio career and greater flexibility.

COVID-19 has accelerated the "humanising" of leadership with vulnerability, empathy and humility highly respected attributes alongside effective, operational decision making.

We have also experienced a rise in enquiries from candidates who are currently based overseas. But there's more to it than their concerns around job security. COVID-19 has compelled many people to consider their life choices, where they want to live, how they want to work and the type of work they want to do. This coincides with the transition to home working and the acknowledgement by employers that remote working can be successfully deployed across large proportions of the workforce. In time, this may have repercussions for talent mobility, the distribution of skills, and sources of talent in the UK as geographic boundaries become much less significant. Aberdeen may benefit from remote working talent, but conversely, jobs outwith the region will undoubtedly attract local talent. For instance, an oil and gas lawyer could work for an Aberdeen based firm while living in Kent. Conversely, an Aberdonian engineer could live locally but work for a nuclear industry site in Somerset.

Flexible Working

There's a mantra that you may have heard recently: Work is what we do, not a place we go. The extraordinary events of the last 6 months have illustrated what can be achieved in the absence of office presenteeism and, the hope is, it will accelerate the move towards more inclusive work cultures (in a recent Mercer survey, 82% of respondents felt that, post-COVID, their work culture would change for the better).

But working from home is not utopia, our individual circumstances and needs determine how well we have adapted and whether it will be our preferred way of working in the future. Our behaviours, and attitudes, may be changed forever and what appears to be emerging is an even stronger desire for flexibility around where and when we work.

Our individual circumstances and needs determine how well we have adapted and whether it will be our preferred way of working in the future.

A poll by Flexibility Works shows 74% of Scots want to work flexibly, or more flexibly, after the pandemic has passed. Every business will have to determine whether it wants to return to pre-COVID ways of working, or if the adoption of tech and home working has created an opportunity for long term change. While relatively few businesses have the resources to conduct analysis like that reported by Microsoft, consultation and good communication with employees is crucial to determine the best ways of working, engage and motivate workers, enhance productivity and encourage positive retention.

If offices are to become smaller, more social spaces used for collaboration, in person meetings and hot desking, there will be significant repercussions for space management, the purpose of our buildings, footfall in areas of commerce and demands on public transport. But there will also be dramatic changes required to the way in which people are managed at work.

Skills Development

Working cultures and how success is measured will be challenged and to be successful, managers will require support to transition from a "boss" role to a leader role. Switching away from micro-managing and KPIs to encouraging team autonomy, defining clear outcomes, and empowering employees by ensuring they have what they need to be successful – no matter where they choose to work from. This will include access to the right tools, understanding preferred style and frequency of communication and redefining performance management and appraisal systems.

Managers will require support to transition from a "boss" role to a leader role.

Furlough through the JRS and staff downsizing have required businesses to redeploy retained staff, calling on them to adapt to new working conditions and digital tools, fill skills gaps and take on additional responsibilities. From candidate discussions, it is clear that many do not recognise that their agile response was testament to their ability to adapt and upskill.

As outlined in the Oil & Gas UK Business Outlook report, the crisis has intensified the urgency to upskill and reskill workers to protect jobs, manage the ongoing disruption, prepare for future competitiveness and work towards the UK's net zero ambitions. The potential to benefit from a green recovery is tremendous, with the Energy Transition Alliance estimating the creation of 27,000 jobs by 2030. But future workforce resilience requires a comprehensive approach, the strain on company finances and headcount complicates, and is likely to protract, best efforts.

The crisis has intensified the urgency to upskill and reskill workers to protect jobs.

While we all await a response from the UK government on a sector deal, organisations are turning to technology to streamline training plans, cut administrative burdens, map skill profiles and of course, to develop skills and reskill people in this constantly evolving environment. There's a plethora of tools enabling a culture of "learn anything, anywhere, anytime", such as tutorials on YouTube, live stream masterclasses, eLearning modules and video game technology that creates a virtual, immersive learning experience. While personal, lifelong learning is to be championed, from an organisational point of view learning must be relevant and applied immediately to the job at hand. And from the candidate's perspective, relevant skills that can be applied quickly make all the difference to their employability.

It is this application which is fuelling the debates around the value of an academic education over an apprenticeship that has "hands on" learning, and improving business performance through diversity and inclusion.

Rates Of Pay

Rates of pay remain steady at pre-lockdown levels (our 2020 Salary Guide is available to download) although we anticipate negative rate changes towards the end of the year as candidate availability grows. Executive reward packages will come under scrutiny, particularly in organisations where costs are slashed and jobs are under threat or lost. We anticipate innovation in employee benefits. A completely different set of benefits become attractive to home workers, such as discounted rates with furniture retailers; digital wellness programmes and fitness classes; online learning and grocery vouchers. There's more detail in our Guide To Remote Recruiting.

Outlook

Employers are closely monitoring government guidance on re-opening business premises, taking prudent decisions to safeguard employee health and safety. The outbreak in Aberdeen and extended lockdown has local employers re-examining remote and flexible working policies. A date has not been set for the reopening of non-essential call centres and offices, with home working remaining the default position. When it is safe to do so, we anticipate employers will adopt a priority role and volunteer first approach, phasing the return of office workers over some months on a flexible basis, and enabling employees to work remotely, for at least part of their working week.

Where there is a business need to return to work our clients have adopted approaches which reduce total employee presence at any one time including compressed working week, shift rota systems and assigned employee bubbles.

COVID-19 has also provided an opportunity to learn about the psychological contract between employer, individual employee and disperse teams. Trust and empathy have flourished, borne out of a better appreciation of the demands placed on all our daily lives while still getting the job done. Please download our Guide To Working From Home - it includes advice for managers and employees.

Dispersed teams have been resilient but there's no doubt it has been draining for retained and furloughed staff alike. The coming months are going to demand more from leaders, teams and individual workers as the size, shape and structure of our businesses is determined.

I would be very interested to hear your insights and experiences, amcculloch@tmmrecruitment.com.

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