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Retail job numbers stay steady – but the nature of the jobs is changing as stores close and online expands

AO is among the retailers that have taken on more fulfilment staff over the last year. Image courtesy of AO

UK retail jobs stayed steady with just over 3m people working in the industry in the opening months of this year, new official figures suggest. But the nature of retail jobs has changed in the last year, says the British Retail Consortium (BRC), with more people now working in roles connected to online and fewer people working in city centre shops. 

The latest ONS jobs figures suggest the jobs market is now in recovery. The latest ONS Labour market overview for the UK shows 28.5m people employed in May 2021, up by 197,000 on the same time last year. However, this is still 553,000 below pre-pandemic employment levels. The largest falls since February 2020, says the ONS, are in the accommodation and food services sector, affecting people aged under 25 and those living in London. 

Some 3.042m people were employed in the retail industry in the first quarter of 2021, according to the BRC’s analysis of today’s figures. That’s 1,000 more than the 3.041m reported at the same time last year, although lower than the 3.102m employed in the fourth, Christmas quarter of last year, to December 2020. This year’s figure includes 2.829m employed and 0.213m self-employed people working in the retail trade, excluding motor vehicles and motorcycles. However, more than half a million of these were on furlough at the time, says the BRC, and overall numbers may fall in the second and third quarters of the year, as the government’s furlough scheme starts to come to an end. 

Helen Dickinson, BRC chief executive, sees a shift in the type of retail jobs that now exist. 

“The year-on-year rise also reflects the many jobs that have been created in logistics, fulfilment, food retail as well as the many technical roles required by the huge growth in online sales, with many retailers still struggling to fill the number of vacancies in these areas,” she says. “These jobs are often more productive and better paid, reflecting a trend in the industry.

“Meanwhile, city centre jobs, particularly in fashion outlets, as well as many other ‘non-essential’ retail shops, have seen some reduction in job numbers. And there could be further losses for these roles, given city centre footfall still remains down on pre-pandemic levels.”

AO (pictured), for example, is among the retailers that has expanded their workforce by adding more warehouses over the last year in response to a growing demand to buy online. 

Dickinson says that retail employment is also changing in other ways, as diversity and inclusion continue to broaden. 

“While progress has started to be made, notably on senior representation of women, they continue to be underrepresented at board level,” says Dickinson. “There is much further to go to ensure that retail leadership is representative of the UK population in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disability and social mobility. To ensure progress, over fifty major retailers pledged to take decisive action to improve diversity practices across the retail industry. This pledge will focus on oversight, recruitment, progression, reporting, inclusivity and responsibility.”

Commenting on today’s jobs figures, Jack Kennedy, UK economist at leading job site Indeed says: “Britain’s recovering economy has turned into an engine of job creation. It’s churning out new vacancies across the board, and in May nearly 200,000 more people were in paid work than during April.

“May’s easing of lockdown restrictions on pubs and restaurants catapulted the hospitality sector from wiped out to white hot. The hospitality sector has suffered a greater number of job losses under the pandemic than any other, but in the three months to the start of June, hiring came back with a bang – and the number of vacancies spiked by an incredible 266%. But employers in other sectors are busy ramping up their hiring too. There were more than three quarters of a million job vacancies across the UK between March and May, and the number of job postings on Indeed has punched through its pre-pandemic level. As of last week, there were 6.5% more vacancies live on Indeed than there were in February 2020.

“The ONS’s data shows a big annual jump in average pay, but this figure is skewed by the loss of many lower-paid jobs over the pandemic. Nevertheless the surge in demand from employers is exceeding the supply of candidates in some sectors – and this is creating hiring bottlenecks.

“If this pattern continues, we would ordinarily expect to see a tightening of the labour market and a gradual rise in wages. However the winding down of the furlough scheme in coming months is likely to thrust more people into jobseeking and boost the supply of candidates. For now the labour market is responding well to the demands placed on it and helping the country’s economic engine rev even faster.”

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