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COVID compounds political uncertainty for recruitment

23 June 2020: David Symes, a specialist recruiter, says that the fall-out for the jobs market was already set in motion by political uncertainty from late 2019 before COVID.

David Symes is the Managing Director of Compliance Recruitment Solutions Ltd. Previously, he worked as a Senior Compliance Officer and was both President of the London Society of Chartered Accountants and a Board Member of the Financial Services Faculty.

His company looks for compliance officers, and anti-money laundering and financial crime specialists. It also does some recruitment for risk and internal audit roles.

Symes believes that the recruitment market has been difficult for some time and that COVID-19 has compounded problems that were already there.

"We can trace what is happening now in recruitment back to what was happening in the second half of last year." Brexit uncertainty was being magnified by political instability at the end of last year, Symes explains, which resulted in a rocky recruitment market.

"Employers were unwilling to recruit, and candidates were unwilling to move in the market," he says. "Brexit was still a major thorn in our side, particularly concerning financial services and the City." Candidates did not want to be last in and first out, so recruitment was stuck.

"Politically, with the election, everyone was then very concerned too about the possibility of a new government that might be unfriendly to business. So combined, these uncertainties meant there was minimal movement thus stopped what we call the merry-go-round in the jobs market."

The election in mid-December brought some stability, but January's jobs market didn't recover. So just how bad was January, before the virus struck, compared with January 2019? "This year has been the worst January that I've seen in 25 years of recruitment, including the financial crisis."

In February came the 'Boris Bounce'. Compared with the previous six months, it looked like the jobs market was finally recovering. "Candidates and clients were feeling optimistic. But with COVID starting in March, there were jobs promised that never materialised, while other jobs were put on hold. Very few of those have come back on."

Symes points to the structural issues now dogging the market because of the new environment for doing business. It has exacerbated the trend started in March for recruitment opportunities to either dry up or be deferred.

"There has been a long-term trend toward working from home, particularly in financial services and business services, especially in central London given restrictions on travel," says Symes. "Because of the lockdown, office workers will probably be the last to go back, and some may never go back in the same numbers or at all."

Symes comments that sales and trading staff do need to go back to working from an office environment in the financial services sector, especially because of concerns about security from the Regulators and Boards of regulated firms.

In contrast, administration and finance staff, on the whole, can work from home more easily. So does this mean that recruitment for home workers has to be performed differently? "It's too soon to say," says Symes. "But at the moment, until firms are back in the office properly, they won't recruit at anything like the volumes they did before.

"No matter how many Zoom interviews you do, for permanent hires, firms want to meet someone on a face-to-face basis. While conversely, candidates might not want to accept the role as it's hard to know if you'll like and respect a future employer via screens."

Firms are less likely to want to recruit until they can go back to the office properly, he says: "It's hard to train someone new on Zoom, let alone impart the methodology and culture of a firm, for example." How can candidates competitive when the job market returns?

"If you're not in a job, or you've been furloughed, and you don't know if you're coming back to work, use your time to stay up to speed on technical requirements or even foreign language skills, and do keep up a weekday working routine," says Symes.