Vacancies are at record levels but stores can’t find the right people, with basic skills sorely absent, says Siân Harrington

Vacancies at shopfloor level at the biggest food retailers are running at record levels, despite more people than ever applying for jobs. The number of positions unfilled at Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Somerfield and Tesco has trebled this year, according to The Grocer’s annual shopfloor recruitment survey by Storecheck Marketing. Yet personnel responsible for recruiting say the number of applicants is increasing.
The survey of recruiters at 130 of the top 600 stores by sales across the five major food retailers shows that the number of shopfloor vacancies as a percentage of total staff has jumped to 15.4% compared with 4.9% last year. Sainsbury has seen the biggest hike, at 23.8% this year versus 5% last year, while Somerfield is up to 13.4% (6% last year) and Tesco 16.4% (4.9%).
However, the number of applicants per job is high, with some stores reporting up to 50 people applying for each job.Only Somerfield recruiters believe it has been harder to recruit this year than last. Personnel at Sainsbury and Morrisons believe it has been easier in the past 12 months while those at Tesco and Asda say it is the same.
At the heart of this crisis is a lack of the skills needed in today’s retail environment. Typical comments from recruiters included: “Volume of applicants is high but quality is low” and “Easier to recruit but harder to find the right person”.
Colin Harper, managing director of Storecheck, says: “Food retail is increasingly seen as an industry people want to go into and a lot more people are applying for jobs. But the retailers say it is harder to find the right people.
“There is a lot of cannon fodder but of those applying, a smaller number appears to be able to do the biz.
“Numeracy and literacy are particular problems, especially poor communication and language skills.”
The majority of those who believed skills were lacking mentioned poor spelling and literacy, followed by language barriers and numeracy.
And as food retailers look to increase their focus on fresh produce, stores are finding it difficult to recruit skilled bakers, butchers and fishmongers - as well as experienced nightshift staff.
One thing is clear: GCSEs are not seen as a good guide to the suitability of a candidate. The vast majority of respondents were negative about the qualification, with comments such as: “Not at all useful. We look for personality and people skills.”
Retail sector skills council Skillsmart says that studies show a significant proportion of the adult population struggles with reading, writing and speaking English and using mathematics at a level necessary to function at work.
According to skills coordinator Jayne Norman: “This lack of basic skills is seriously affecting productivity and profitability, with the overall cost to the UK economy estimated at £10bn per annum.
“In the recent National Employer Skills Survey we found that, while the sector may not be experiencing basic skills issues among management, problems exist among shopfloor employees that can have an impact across an entire store.”
So retail is finding it more difficult than other industries to recruit people with the desired literacy and numeracy compared with the national average. More than 36% of retail employers said they found it hard to find employees with the right level of literacy skills and 31% said the same for numeracy. The national averages are 28% and 25% respectively.
There has also been a hike in the percentage of shopfloor staff leaving each year, up from 18.8% across the chains last year to 29% this year. This reverses the downward trend in previous surveys.
Only Tesco (24.4%)and Somerfield (11%) are below average. Meanwhile Asda’s staff turnover has doubled in a year to 37.5% while Sainsbury’s is up a third to 33.4% and Morrisons’ to 30.7%.
Stores face individual issues that affect staff turnover. One, for example, is up against a new call centre that offers higher pay. But by far and away the major issue was the high level of students employed, which inevitably results in a quick turnover.
Jane Basley, Sainsbury HR recruitment manager, says food retailing is attractive to students. “It is a great proving ground for students, giving them something good to put on their CV and some real customer service skills. In our case, we offer dual-store contracts, with students able to work both at the store near to their college and also the one near their home.
“And many students are interested in being part of a business that is experiencing a turnaround.
“But students then have to decide whether to stay in retail or go into something else - and naturally we therefore expect to see high turnover.”
Difficulty in finding the right people is a major problem for food retailers when they are ramping up shopfloor staff levels.
Earlier this year Ken McMeikan, Sainsbury retail director, said the company was putting stores back at the heart of its business, with the creation of 3,000 extra shop positions, while Asda this month announced plans to recruit nearly 3,000 new staff across the UK, with at least seven new positions in each of its 289 stores.
Such rapid expansions in store staff numbers goes some way to help explain the high level of vacancies when the survey was undertaken in September. Basley agrees, saying: “We are looking to expand in areas such as non food and are therefore creating new positions.”She suspects our technological age is a factor in limiting the development of personal skills. “How to get on with people is a basic skill. It could be that, in this age of e-mail and PCs, people are getting less practice at speaking to people and there is a knock-on effect.”
One pleasing survey result for both Sainsbury and Somerfield is that their recruiters believe they are seen as more desirable than in previous years.
Morrisons’ difficulties are having a negative impact, with its rating falling, as have those of Asda and Tesco.
Methods of recruiting at store level have not changed in the three years The Grocer has run the survey, with the local Jobcentre, word of mouth and in-store adverts still the favoured and most productive methods.
Overall, the survey shows that food retailers are doing a good job in terms of communicating the benefits of working in the industry. But the message to government is that it needs to address the skills gap.

What the multiples say
“It’s harder to recruit skilled people like butchers and bakers”
“Being thorough seems to be a problem”
“It’s hard to find the ‘right’ person”
“The volume of applicants is high, but the quality is low”

Staff out of stocks
>>the crisis in recruitment: the detail
Shopfloor vacancies as a percentage of staff (%)

Percentage leaving per year (%)

How desirable are you as an employer in your area?
(1 = not desirable, 5 = very desirable)

Is it getting harder to recruit than last year?
(1 = easier, 5 = harder)