By Taran Uppal, Analyst

The social sector is hurtling towards a serious skills shortage. Recruitment in the social sector is becoming increasingly difficult: vacancies are on the rise, more of those vacancies are long-term, and the sector is finding it harder to recruit the right skills. The sector has also been cutting back on training, with spending falling by 25% per employee since 2011. This means recruitment challenges are being compounded by training cutbacks, at a time where investment in skills is most needed. The sector must take action to prevent the worst effects of a skills shortage – namely, losing current and prospective employees to other employment sectors, and difficulties maintaining vital services due to a lack of relevant skills. 

Recruitment in the social sector has become harder  

The social sector has been on a need-driven recruitment drive for some time. In the decade running up to the outbreak of Covid, job growth in civil society grew at almost twice the pace of the UK economy. That hiring spree only accelerated through the pandemic years and beyond, as charities in particular grew in order to meet spiralling demand for their services. 

Yet filling these jobs has not been easy. More positions than ever in the social sector are vacant: the proportion of vacant roles has almost doubled from 2.6% in 2011 to nearly 5% in 2022. Hard to fill vacancies, defined as persistently vacant roles, have more than tripled during that time period, with 57% of vacancies in the sector now defined as hard to fill.   

That raises a real red flag, not just for the community organisations and charities involved but for the people that they serve, because hard to fill vacancies damage social sector organisations’ ability to operate effectively. Notably, among charities, the impacts of hard to fill vacancies include delays to the introduction of new services – which 52% of charities struggling to recruit cite – while almost a third (29%) of those charities report difficulties introducing new practices. This means day-to-day operations are being significantly impacted, while opportunities for improvement and innovation are being missed as a result of recruitment issues – and these issues are only set to grow. 

In order to reverse the growth of hard to fill vacancies, it’s vital to understand the causes. While many factors contribute to recruitment challenges, charities are clear that the leading issue is the lack of applicants with appropriate skills. Skills shortage vacancies where candidates lack the right skillset for the role – have risen from 13% of vacancies in the social sector in 2011 to 38% in 2022. The rate of this growth has also been increasing, which suggests recruitment issues within the sector will worsen over the coming years.   

Recruitment problems vary by size and by sector, but skills challenges are growing 

The skills vacuum affects industries across the economy, with businesses in industries from agriculture to advanced technology and engineering to haulage regularly highlighting the impact a challenging recruitment environment has on them. Rising vacancies, hard to fill vacancies, and skills shortage vacancies have plagued the public sector too. 

However, for the social sector, the skills vacuum is a newer problem, which is escalating more rapidly than in some other parts of the economy. For example, as Figure 3 shows, the social sector enjoyed 10% fewer skills shortage vacancies than the private sector in 2015 – but that cushion had disappeared by 2022. The social sector’s hard to fill vacancy rate also outstripped the private sector’s in 2022. These trends suggest that the social sector is losing ground to the private sector in the race for skills.  

If this trend continues, the social sector is likely to lose a progressively greater number of prospective skilled candidates to the private sector. Worryingly, more of the current skilled workforce in the sector may also be tempted by attractive offerings from the private sector in the future. This will have escalating knock-on consequences for the millions of vulnerable people served by these very skills. 

Urgent action is therefore essential, and social sector organisations which have experienced recruitment difficulties have responded to them. The most popular solution social sector organisations say they have opted for to address skills gaps is to increase training offerings (71%). Yet the evidence suggests that, rather than increasing the training being made available to their teams, the reality is that the level of training on offer in the social sector is in decline. 

Spending on training in the social sector is falling 

Real terms per employee training spend across the social sector has fallen by more than 25% since 2011. The social sector is less willing or able to invest in their workforce, with a challenging financial backdrop likely a big factor in these cutbacks. This fall in spend per employee is notably higher than the private sector, where spend has fallen by 18% another indication that the social sector is losing ground on skills.  

Of course, in the social sector, spending on training doesn’t communicate the full picture – because social sector organisations and their staff often have access to free or pro bono training opportunities. The amount of time that employees are spending in training can provide a clearer picture. Yet here too, there have been declines. The social sector has seen erosion of almost 20% of its training time per employee between 2011 and 2022. When coupled with the fall in training spend, both the quality and the quantity of training in the social sector appear to be shrinking. 

When compared with other sectors, the social sector offers a proportionate amount of training time, at 3.6 days a year per employee, a midpoint between the private sector (3.4 days) and the public sector (3.8 days). Accordingly, it tends to occupy a middle ground for training coverage between public and private sectors.  

However, as shown in Figure 5, the social sector lags behind the private and public sectors in providing time for employees to spend on training in the two areas most relevant to closing the skills vacuum: job-specific training and training in technology. Job-specific training – that is, training to help employees fulfil their specific role responsibilities – is essential to tackle the skills vacuum the sector is experiencing. And the new technology deficit comes in spite of pandemic disruption, where 81% of charities changed their use of digital technologies 

Reversing the skills vacuum in the social sector is not straightforward. The backdrop of continued financial and funding challenges posts serious barriers, with 93% of charities reporting that cost is a barrier to accessing leadership training. This is a more serious barrier to small charities as training funds vary by size within the sector: just 52% of smaller charities have a dedicated training budget compared to 86% of larger charities. The use of short-term fixed contracts, necessitated by the uncertain nature of contract funding, in the sector is also likely to play a role, as it disincentivises organisations from investing for the long-term in their employees. It’s also likely that time availability is another barrier, which particularly effects small charities, as demand for charitable services remains elevated.    

Without a silver bullet, numerous parts of the social sector will need to pull together in order to shrink the skills vacuum. Further awareness of the free or low-cost training resources available to the sector would be helpful. Funders have a vital role to play in addressing core costs like training in order to ensure the projects they care about are delivered to the highest possible standard. And challenging though the environment is, ongoing conversations with commissioners about the need for long-term funding and contracting arrangements are critical. Because while the skills vacuum continues to grow, the sustainability of the social sector suffers, to the cost of the people who need the social sector the most.