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Worker shortage crisis in Frome?

BREXIT and the Covid crisis has caused a shortage of workers for a number of industries, which could see consumers paying the price with price hikes and product shortages. 

That’s the opinion of local desserts company, Marston Foods, who have warned that recruitment difficulties have already pushed up prices across their entire supply chain; and have called for urgent short-term action to allow more skilled workers into the UK. 

And Marston Foods are not alone – Somerset Chamber of Commerce say businesses across the region are struggling to recruit at all skill levels and have warned that the economic recovery post-Covid is being threatened by labour market and recruitment issues.

To combat the problem in the short-term and attract and retain team members, Marston Foods has increased wages for all new and existing production staff – also introducing a ‘performance bonus’ for all production staff for the next six months. 

“This limitation in workers, due to both Brexit and Covid combined, is unparalleled and quite remarkable,” said Marston Foods’ commercial director, Leona McDonald. 

Loyal workforce

“As a high-end food manufacturer, we require workers with some level of skill to make our desserts. It takes time and money to train people to the standards that we require, and so once we have people we like to keep them, but we have lost a lot of our loyal European workforce and there seems to be very few local people to train.  

“We live in a disparately populated area, with low unemployment and a rather lapse public transport system. There are applicants, but due to the remit with regards to benefit claims, a majority never take the application process any further and so we waste time chasing and calling to no avail. Offering higher pay and other benefits – which we are doing – is only part of the solution to a much wider issue. 

“The shortage is already causing price increases and shortages across the whole supply chain, making this everyone’s problem. Pretty soon, if nothing is done, consumers will not be able to get what they need, like or want and if they do, the price is going to have to increase as suppliers such as ourselves cannot keep being squeezed and still survive.  

Competitive pay and fun environment

“We need some short-term action; for example, an extension to the T5 skilled workers list to include manufacturing, and a plan to enable labour availability for the short, medium and long term, not just the long via the long-term plans such as the apprenticeship scheme. 

“In summary, we have jobs here in Frome. If you want to work, come to work. We offer competitive rates of pay, a fun environment and a real sense of pride in what we do.” 

According to the British Chambers of Commerce South West (BCCSW), businesses across the region are struggling to recruit at all skill levels.  

They say, “From the highly skilled manual and technical roles, where two-thirds are experiencing difficulties finding the right staff, to the professional and managerial personnel that over half of services-based firms are struggling to hire. The problems pervade further down, with almost a third of businesses having difficulties filling semi or unskilled positions.” 

And they have warned that the speed and extent of the South West’s economic recovery is “threatened by labour market tightness and recruitment issues”, despite the recent post-lockdown rebound in business activity, confidence and cashflow. 

 “The sudden resurgence of business activity has meant that businesses who need to recruit are confronted by a tight labour market, especially for skilled staff,” said Somerset Chamber of Commerce’s operations manager, Alistair Tudor. 

 “The double impact of Brexit and Covid-19 has had major impacts on the location and availability of the workforce in the South West, with a falling but still significant proportion of our residents on either furlough or Universal Credit. 

 “We cannot let the talent and potential of our communities go to waste, or for that matter put at risk our economic recovery, due to tricky but ultimately solvable labour market challenges.” 

No easy fix

The BCCSW has said that there is no “easy fix” to solve the region’s labour market struggles and has warned that “real solutions” are required to address both the current and long-term shortages of talent and people that businesses need to grow out of the recession. 

They say, “Short-term interventions such as improving the operational delivery of the Government’s much hyped ‘Kickstart’ programme; a review of the visa system – especially the earnings thresholds for bringing back workers from overseas in the near term with the skills that businesses need; and considering changes to the Universal Credit requirement to be looking for work (which was suspended early on in the pandemic) could all play a part at least for the lower skilled or seasonal roles across the South West. 

“The longer-term skills agenda is also key. Businesses are calling for the government to set up and properly communicate a comprehensive and mature roadmap to upskill our residents and communities to adapt to the long-term employment needs of our economy. The Government’s Skills and Post 16 Education Bill will have an important role, as will the announcement of the Local Skills Improvement Plans.”  

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