2014 was the year when the UK economy finally seemed to come out of recession after six very tough years. And we expect 2015 to be the year that growth becomes visible again. The latest figures presented by the Office for Budget Responsibility have projected growth of 2.3% for 2015, and it looks like we are finally entering a sustained period of development. The good news is that this progression is across the whole economy and we should see even greater progress within the scientific and engineering sectors as additional incentives such as R&D tax credits; the patent box; investment in training and infrastructure initiated by the government; start to take effect. One of the results of this growth has been an increase in demand for highly skilled staff within the chemical and pharmaceutical industries across the UK.
According to the latest Report on Jobs published by KPMG and the REC for February 2015, the increase in number of permanent vacancies so far in 2015 has continued to rise, though at a slower pace that the large growth in vacancies in 2014. However the long term growth in terms of vacancies is well above average from the last 20 years. So far this year among the quickest growing areas are engineering and technical (including sciences), followed by the construction and the medical/clinical fields. Other sectors where there is a high demand for staff are IT & finance and while still growing strongly, the number of vacancies within the blue collar fields does not matching the growth rates in the highly skilled sectors. While the expansion within the technical sectors has been sustained and pronounced over the last year, it is envisaged that the construction sector will become the fastest growing sector within the UK economy over the next few months.
The chemical industry has seen sustained demand for additional staff over the last two years and employers in this industry are now demonstrating a much higher level of confidence in future economic growth. With increased levels of investment, they are now hiring additional staff to meet future demands. Liam O Connell, Operations Director at CK Science, the specialist recruitment company within the chemical industry states “We have seen a 15% increase in the number of vacancies registered already this year, which follows a 12% increase over the same period in 2013. The interesting aspect of the current market is that a large number of the vacancies we are handling facilitate future investment, a rise in research & development and also production, while much of the need for staff in 2013 was to take up the slack in the system.” It is interesting to note the areas where the main requirement is occurring. Within the engineering sector there is major growth within the design and validation fields, while there has also been a notable increase in the need for regulatory and commercial scientists as organisations prepare to meet the increase in demand for their products. Victoria Walker, Senior Chemical Consultant for the North West has also noticed this trend. “Companies are aggressively pursuing new business globally and they are creating additional positions for commercial sales chemists amongst other new technical roles. These organisations are particularly interested in those candidates with language skills to match their technical and commercial skills.” This surge in requirement for staff, however, has met a number of obstacles and organisations must develop and implement candidate attraction and retention plans to meet future growth.
Issues facing the chemical industry in relation to demand for staff include:
- Lack of intermediate level candidates. Over the six years a great number of highly skilled and educated professionals have left the scientific and engineering industries. They have moved to different sectors, and sadly in many instances to non manufacturing organisations, where their skills have been highly valued and they have achieved better financial rewards.
- Not enough junior candidates entering the scientific and engineering sectors. It is only in the last few years that greater emphasis has been placed on promotion of technical careers to school leavers within our industries, both at GCSE- and A-levels. Career guidance at school level has been poor over the last 20 years which has, in turn, led to a large number of universities cutting back on the science and engineering courses offered. In some cases, tragically, courses have been shut down altogether.
It should be said that this situation is improving with “sciences” now being regarded as a good area to develop a career, and it is encouraging to see an increased number of school leavers choosing further education in a science capacity. However there will still be a gap between demand and supply until these potential scientific and engineering professionals gain enough relevant experience.
- Visa restrictions. Traditionally the UK chemical industry has employed an above-average level of highly skilled candidates from non EEA countries. Thus far, this has helped fill the gap created by a lack of graduates and those looking for their second job, in chemistry and engineering roles. However, with the stringent visa criteria imposed in the last few years this door has been shut. Now Masters graduates are having to return to their country of origin upon completion of their studies rather than being allowed to work under the Post Study Work Visa. CK Science has also had dealings with a number of chemical companies who have had vacancies for highly skilled staff, as their existing employees have not had their visas renewed due to the new criteria and have therefore had to leave the UK.
- Salaries in the chemical industry have not changed much over the last six years; in fact the average starting salary for graduate chemists has decreased – and is considerably below the average UK graduate starting salary. In order to attract, retain and develop the highly skilled professionals essential for the future growth and development of the chemical industry, it is essential that they can achieve a remuneration package which means that they will not be attracted to other sectors such as finance or legal.
So what do we do to improve the situation with regard to ensuring that there are enough suitable candidates to meet demand over the next few years?
- Plan ahead. Make sure that you know how many staff you will be looking for and at what level as your organisation grows. As part of this plan you should know where you are going to source these candidates – whether it is from internal development, advertising campaigns, or working in partnership with recruitment companies.
- In many situations it is a much cheaper and more effective option to recruit at a junior level and spend additional time training these staff. It is always worth investigating this option as it is easier to recruit at a graduate or PhD level candidate than someone with experience, and it is a much simpler process to develop them to meet your specific requirements.
- European market. Due to lack of growth in some countries there is a large number of highly skilled candidates from the Mediterranean area who are more than happy to come and work in the UK. With no visa restrictions, these candidates have the added advantage of speaking a number of European languages in most cases.
- Schools/Universities. There is a much greater need for the chemical industry to develop closer links with local schools and universities. Work placements, open days and careers advice all need to be encouraged. The chemical industry needs to take the lead in approaching schools and universities to get pupils and students to want to work and study in the disciplines required for the future of our industry. We need to portray a much higher profile with organisations such as STEM and The Apprentice Council.
- Benefit packages. It is important that we maintain the competitive advantage regarding what is on offer to our highly skilled professionals, as they are required to ensure the growth of the chemical industry. Be creative: bonuses, pension schemes, holiday entitlement, perks, lunch vouchers, career development plans, flexible working hours and more all play an important part in candidate attraction and retention.
Overall, the good news is that confidence in the chemical industry in the UK is at a very high level and this is reflected by the growth in new roles within the sector; particularly in the highly skilled science and engineering based positions. In order to ensure that organisations can meet this increased demand for staff, however, they have to be much more proactive and innovative in how they recruit, develop and retain staff. Remember that the successful companies who will gain most from improved economic circumstances are those who have the best staff!