The World Covid Left Behind

Recruitment Trends in 2021

Three decades* & four recessions. Terrible movie title, but that is my career in recruitment. (*almost)

…but the last 2 years have seen a recruitment sector like no other. We went from near full employment in Q4 2019, to over 11 million unemployed or furloughed in Q2 2020. Buoyant recruitment sector to no recruitment sector.

Fears of 9 million unemployed were thankfully very wide of the mark, thanks Rishi, but millions of people suddenly found themselves with job uncertainty, or even worse.

Across the world it was even worse, without such a supportive Furlough scheme, the US spiralled from 3.8% unemployment in Jan 2020 to 15% just 4 months later. The UK went from a similarly low 3.9% to only a 5.2% peak over the same timescale (The EU peaking at 8.6%).

Bounce Back

But my word has it bounced back. We may still be at 4.2%, 0.3%-points higher than pre-pandemic, but as a country, we are currently sitting with more job vacancies than people looking for a job and with nearly 33 million people in work; just 300,000 less than the all-time high of Jan 2020.

The rest of the work has fared similarly. The US is down to 4.6% unemployment, the EU at 7.4%.

And with all countries seeing numbers improve, talent acquisition is getting harder. Truck driver shortages across the UK, the EU and the US made the headlines first, but every area, every sector, every job junction is feeling the squeeze.

Executive Search

Exec and the C-Suite hasn’t escaped either. With a fairly torrid 18 months keeping business afloat/performing/solvent, some execs had delayed retirement plans, others have now accelerated retirement/slowdown plans, others are realising LTIPs/Equity as the take their foot off the gas. Add in a move to strengthen board numbers as well cruelly as board quality, as predicted here (Article: Boardroom Clearouts – Investors become Dons) – a whole category of business leaders who simply didn’t lead well during the pandemic and will be replaced, will further exacerbate demand problems, the Executive recruitment market is seeing its own share of challenges. 


A key driver behind the increasing difficulty in procuring key talent is a mismatch in supply & demand. We may have just over a million real jobseekers and just over a million jobs available, but it doesn’t always balance out.

For a start, some employers are still acting as if we are in the darker days of the pandemic, expecting too much for too little to entice jobseekers. Others are missing the pull of flexible/hybrid working. Some individuals are also more fearful of returning to work in still uncertain societal and economic times. For others the jobs available are simply just not attractive enough to risk moving; or leaving the safety net of social protection/social security.

At executive/leaderships grades the skills sought are again often mismatched with those on offer. Demonstrable crisis management and/or driving post-pandemic growth along with leading a team cohesion/cultural repurposing/communication are highly sought skills, but those with that experience are often not those wanting to make a move, or wanting to repeat the experience. Smart businesses are placing golden handcuffs around the best key leaders….any exec out on the open market, sat on a recruiter’s proactive database, is too often not handcuffed for a reason.

Claw back to stability?

We are getting back to normal; perhaps a ‘new normal’, but for business at least it looks like a welcome, familiar normal.

But the trends we have seen during, and learned from the last 18 months are likely here to stay. 

“Great Attrition Vs Great Attraction”

Forbes reported over 40% of employees were at least ‘somewhat likely’ to leave their employers in the 3-to-6 months. They highlighted leisure and hospitality as being the most at risk, but no sector avoided it – even education, the sector reporting the least likelihood of losing staff, still had over 25% ‘somewhat likely’ to leave.

With 53% of employers reporting greater voluntary staff turnover and 64% expecting it to get worse in 2022, employers have a stark choice whether to accept Great Attrition or employ measures of Great Attraction…..especially as Forbes report that 36% of those voluntarily leaving employment did so without a job lined-up to go to. 

Flexible/Hybrid Working

Every survey conducted shows that the vast majority of people who are able to work flexibly, want to work flexibly. Industry figures show: 

  • 57% job offer turn-down rate for position without flexible/hybrid working
  • 85% of people would like some form of flexible/hybrid working
  • 68% of business recognising lack of flexible/hybrid working makes recruitment harder
  • 63% of business recognising they WILL lose staff if they don’t offer flexible/hybrid working
  • 90% of CEOs recognise the importance of employment innovation
  • Our own survey showed 60% of people would move job just to retain flexible/hybrid working (HERE)

Large global businesses have [been forced to] offer formal flexible working structures Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wrote to all employees instructing them to return to the office….it took just 2 days for 1,000s of Apple employees to collaborate and write an open letter back to him requesting flexibility (that letter can be found at the bottom of this article).

Conversely Facebook & Google came straight out and offered flexible working and saw a glut of job applications in response.


Upward salary pressure has reversed partial stagnation over the last few years in executive recruitment, largely as bonus heavy/incentive-biased packages have become less attractive in a quest for greater long term stability.


Buzz word of the last 10 years perhaps, but that makes it no less relevant now. The environment and personality within a business has never been more key when attracting talent. Flexible working becomes a major component in that, but also its greatest challenge. Defining & ensuring a culture is a challenge when you seldom have more than 50% of the team present….and forced/false initiatives are often fruitless, and can become counterproductive.

‘Me’ to ‘We’

A notable development, and extension of internal culture as above, is the shift of power within businesses from profit to mutual prosperity; and that mutuality, the ‘we’, is no longer just within the business, but what the business is doing for the wider societal environment. From diversity, sustainability, societal responsibility and accountability, [prospective] employees are starting to ask, ‘Who are we’, ‘Why are we doing this’, ‘What are we doing it for’, ‘How can we do it better for everyone’. Businesses with a social responsibility are increasingly attractive, way beyond CSR. 


From having the right people just in the wrong roles, through to having truly toxic leaders, the pandemic has been an opportunity to fully review organisations charts, engage in constructive 360 reviews and understand employee career objectives with the aim of repurposing a business’s human structure to become more fit for its modern purpose and more adept at responding to future developments.

Increased Demand

As business emerges from the pandemic, the race to get greater talent (numbers and quality) has never been greater, the best candidates are facing numerous job opportunities, but the best have no reason to leave an employer that treats and rewards them well to enter a higher stress/higher demand/unknown environment.

Democratising Processes

Video interviews have brought a wide raft of new opportunities, and challenges. The ability to broaden the selection criteria and briefly meet candidates who would be otherwise fringe options on paper. It also brings the opportunity to counsel the opinion of a far greater number of line managers & peers within the hiring business, and for candidates to meet & engage with those same increased number of people.

It also levels the playing field for all candidates. Everyone has the same 15-inch stage on which to perform, arguably favouring the less gregarious.


Testing someone’s commitment and genuine interest in the role being headhunted for used to be comparatively easily. A couple of cute questions to ascertain true motivation coupled with their willingness to travel and take time away to attend interviews was a near perfect barometer– but with Covid came Zoom. Scheduling hours of travel, often with significant cost, has been swapped with an hour of ‘do not disturb’ in your diary as your diarised video call took on a slightly more clandestine nature. Understanding and clarifying true interest and motivation to move role is now a vital component to factor in, especially in an environment where exec candidates will have plenty of suitors.


May sound very 1980’s Wall Street, but a significant number of business leaders have faced intense stress and change of pace in the last 18 months against a backdrop of seeing every facet of work and home life upended. Many are exhausted, no longer want to be part of the rat-race. The exodus of execs leaving the South-East to head North in search of a calmer life has been almost worthy of William the Conqueror’s harrying exploits.

Away from the Exec grades, many employees are tired and even verging on PTSD/grief for their lives over the last 18 months. They crave greater social interaction, interpersonal connection and recognition in the workplace.

Notice Periods

A final nod to the post-acceptance process. Notice periods are being upheld. With the realisation that replacement is more challenging, early release is far harder to secure. An average of under 50% of notice periods being served has given way to over 75% being fully enforced, including 12 month notice periods. 

Covid changed the world, the negatives are well documented and would have been beyond comprehension just 2 years ago, but those changes also bring opportunity to develop leadership, perspective, workplace culture, creativity, humility and humanity. Once again reacting to the world around us; this time for a positive outcome.

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