Returning the Workforce Survey 2021 – West Midlands Results

Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

Results of the British Chambers of Commerce Workforce, Reopening & Skills Survey 2021 have revealed that the vast majority of responding businesses in the West Midlands will see increased operations to pre-pandemic levels by October 2021. Most businesses have no plans to require evidence of vaccination from customers, suppliers or employees. Additionally, over half have concerns around the impact of flexible working on employee mental health, and over a third of businesses are struggling with skills gaps.

Business Attitudes towards the Reopening Process

Business plans over the next twelve months are varied, with 44% having concrete plans for growth and 18% expecting growth but no concrete plan. Contrastingly, 29% of businesses expect plans/activity to stay the same and 7% are likely to reduce activity.

84% of businesses expect to restart operations to pre-pandemic levels by October 2021, of these 56% have already restarted, and only 4% would return by 2023. Over the next twelve months, 45% will partially return to the office or not use it at all, whereas 46% will return to full use.

The main barriers listed for restarting operations to pre-pandemic levels were reduced or no customer demand (41%), the concern of future lockdown (36%), supply chain or international trade issues (34%) and Covid-19 requirements (33%). Additionally, cash flow/financial issues were still a barrier for up to 20% of businesses. Interestingly, 41% of businesses agree and 45% disagree that access to external finance would help overcome the aforementioned barriers.

Implementation of Covid Measures

The main Covid-19 measures business will implement over the next 12 months are unsurprisingly social distancing (68%), hand sanitiser (56%), face coverings (53%), limited access to office/premises (37%) and changes to office/ premises (37%). However, only 15% of businesses have placed requirements on customers, suppliers or employees to provide evidence of vaccination.

Flexible Working

The main methods of flexible working include working from home (63%), part-time working (42%), and flexitime or staggered hours (42%), with 18% of jobs offered as flexible standard. This has transpired to an average of 34% of employees working remotely in some respect.

Businesses may need to consider options to increase the effectiveness of remote working through addressing perceived barriers. The highest are staff morale, mental health or well-being (56%), reliance on direct face-to-face contact with staff or customers (42%), need a presence to operate equipment (41%) and fairness to staff whose roles cannot be done remotely (31% ). Some other issues include monitoring or measuring productivity (29%), IT (24%) and internet connectivity (22%).

Assessing Skills Requirements

37% of businesses disagree that they can recruit workers with the skills needed.

Future skill requirements are assessed internally through audits, benchmarks or dialogue with staff (34%), a written plan detailing how the organisation will meet training or recruitment requirements (17%), consulting with recruitment or HR agencies (15%), consulting with education/training providers (13%) and consulting with the Chamber of Commerce (8%). Surprisingly, 23% do not assess skill requirements.

Over the next 12 months, if businesses face skills gaps, the main actions to address this would include investing in training and development (43%), recruiting apprentices or trainees (36%), using self-employed workers (32%), outsourcing work (22%) and working with education providers (21%).

In the long run (over the next three years) business development or sales (52%) leadership and management skills (43%) and industry-specific (52%) skills are perceived to be most needed. Other skills included administrative (39%), customer service or interpersonal (34%), project management (33%), problem solving (31%). 17-23% of responses related to digital skills.

Regarding barriers to skills, 34% mentioned skills of education or school leavers are not matched to business needs, 16% cited lack of budget for investment in workforce training and 10% can’t find or access the training the business needs. Interestingly, 18% stated that their industry is not attractive to UK workers.

Future external drivers of change impacting skill requirements were varied, with the highest group being changing customer behaviours or expectations (41%), Covid recovery (40%), employee behaviour or expectations (32%), economic pressure or political uncertainty (33%) and Brexit/ EU-UK UKTCA transition (32%).  Other drivers included the digitalisation of workplaces or processes (26%) and climate change or the net zero transition (18%).


T-levels are the vocational/technical alternative to A-levels and began in September 2020. Every T-level will include an industry placement with an employer for a minimum of 45 days. Results show 57% of businesses have no plans around T-Levels, with only 2% currently offering and 8% aiming to offer in the future, 22% of business need more information. 

National Living Wage

The National Living Wage, currently at £8.91 per hour for people aged over 23, is expected to rise to around £10.10 per hour by 2024. Business responses for the next three years include not affected (45%), raise prices (35%), absorb the cost (18%), increase automation (14%).