Is there a tech-based solution to the skills shortage in the retail industry?

retail skills shortage

The skills shortage experienced in the UK in 2021 is prominent. The combination of Covid-19, Brexit, and to some extent, IR35, has left almost all sectors of UK business struggling for talent. Between July and September, the Office for National Statistics reported the highest level of British job vacancies since records began in 2001, with 1.1 million positions vacant, yet unemployment is also high, at 4.5%. Is there a solution to help remedy this gap between supply and demand, and can technology provide the answer?

Why is there a skills shortage in retail?

If you were operating a retail business at the beginning of 2020, you will be aware of the terrible disruption wrought by Covid-19. For many, lengthy periods of lockdown meant laying off staff. For some, it meant a loss of business and a fresh start in the relative calm of mid-2021. In that time, core groups of previous employees had moved on, with some seeking employment in supermarkets or even retraining completely. With the added complication of Brexit preventing previously willing European workers from picking up the slack, staff shortages were inevitable. 

Alongside the economic and environmental factors driving a decline in the retail workforce, sector appeal has also had a significant impact. For swathes of the UK workforce, the pandemic opened the opportunity of working from home. In frontline retail, that isn’t an option. Long hours, non-competitive pay structures, and the daily threat of Covid exposure (a growing concern as each new variant is discovered) have led retail work to lose much of its appeal, reducing the available talent to strikingly low levels. 

Presently, the seasonal retail employment surge is adding to existing demand. As a result, it is unsurprising that so many retailers are struggling to fill vacancies, searching for ways to increase employee retention. 

What can ease the problem of the retail skills shortage?

Before you can adequately resolve a problem, you must understand it and how it relates to your business. In retail, businesses struggling with a perceived shortage of talent have multiple avenues to explore. 

A skills shortage can be impacted by a full range of factors: recruitment processes, scheduling, training, and employee retention. Companies need to evaluate the impression that the recruitment process creates for your business, the efficiency of staff scheduling systems, and employee wellbeing. Keep in mind that employees have other commitments outside of working hours such as childcare and will appreciate increased flexibility and compassion. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to influence every aspect of life, remain aware that employees may need to isolate or take care of unwell family members at short notice. An effective technology-based scheduling system that facilitates shift-swapping and the broadcasting of available shifts is vital. 

Training must also remain accessible and effective, with built-in opportunities for progression within the business. Employees want to feel part of the team in a positive company environment. There must be an emphasis on the importance of enthusiasm, commitment, and collaboration alongside educational opportunities. Employees want more than just good pay – they also want a good job. 

How can technology help the retail skills shortage?

With the correct application, technology and automation can support the soft skills required in frontline retail. Both retail and hospitality are prominent customer-facing sectors. Employees are often left feeling undervalued due to unappreciative customers and employers – integrating better communication, training, and employee support through technology can at least tackle part of this problem. For example, the provision of a digital workplace for employees, managers, and directors facilitates a space for real-time communication and feedback. Employees can connect with their coworkers, ask questions, and receive direct task allocation. They can also manage their training, with managerial intervention where required, empowering them to improve and advance in the company. Smart scheduling systems allow for the optimisation of the workforce, preventing both over and understaffing and preventing employee burnout. 

Although there is a clear skills shortage in the UK due to a myriad of factors, there are solutions to be found in the effective implementation of technology. People seek employment with financial security, personal growth, and a positive environment. Technology provides the necessary support for businesses to facilitate these conditions, making them a more attractive option for job seekers. 

Credit: Mark Williams

Retail Operations Excellence Team Photography, Surrey,UK,2018

As Managing Director, Mark Williams is leading WorkJam‘s expansion in EMEA. Before joining the company, Mark held the position of Global Enablement Manager of Retail at Shell, where he was responsible for all frontline digital transformation projects. Operating with different structures across the globe, Shell’s challenge was to provide consistently excellent service through a fragmented workforce, without a large directly managed footprint. Under Mark’s leadership, the Enablement Team rolled out WorkJam to 100,000 employees across 35 global business units. Unifying communications, learning, and task management revolutionized how Shell Retail worked, improving turnover, compliance, and employee experience.