How to recruit for hard-to-fill roles

Phil Kendall

Oct 2017 ⋅ 9 min read

If you've been struggling to recruit the right people for your vacant roles recently, you're definitely not alone.

In an eye-opening study by the Open University, 90% of the 400 UK businesses surveyed reported finding it difficult to recruit employees with the required skills in the last 12 months.

With unemployment at a 40-year low, the jobs market is increasingly favouring the candidate rather than the employer.

And the number of unemployed people per vacancy is now only 1.9 - the lowest since the government started collecting this data at the turn of the century.

There's also a mismatch between the supply and demand of various skills across the country, with this skills gap further exacerbating recruitment problems in sectors like tech, construction, and engineering.

We're based in the city of York, where the city's hospitality industry is currently dealing with its own skills shortage.

And with the UK's approaching exit from the EU set to restrict the workforce further still, recruiting during skills shortages is something that employers will have to get used to.

Whether you work with a recruitment agency or handle hiring in-house, there's plenty you can do to adjustment your recruitment efforts in this challenging environment.

Problem #1: Low Supply of Skills

empty desks at office

This type of skills shortage occurs because there simply aren't enough people equipped with the skills businesses require. This situation usually arises in fast-moving tech industries, where new programming languages and software emerge all the time and entire new job roles are created on a regular basis.

Finding qualified employees is near impossible, particularly if you're outside of tech hubs such as London and Manchester.

When recruiting for these roles, you're often forced to inflate salaries hugely in an attempt to get noticed by candidates. This approach just isn't sustainable for many companies.


There are several ways to adjust your recruitment strategy in this scenario. Let's look at them from the least disruptive to the most expensive.

#1 Relax requirements

You may be after an AngularJS developer with more than three years' experience, but if your search hasn't been successful even when you offer a generous salary, it might be time to widen your search.

Look for candidates with only a year's experience, but with additional work in a related field. Search for candidates who are highly talented and driven even if they're relatively new to their chosen field.

#2 Offer to train new hires

Relax your requirements even further and look for candidates that are missing a key skill for the role but have other skills and the right mindset to help them learn quickly.

Candidates who are motivated by learning new skills will jump at the chance to be paid to learn, and they'll always be grateful that you offered them such an opportunity.

We used this technique at RotaCloud when struggling to fill an important tech role, and we're delighted with how it's worked out.

#3 Set up an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships give you access to a low-cost source of labour. Depending on the role you're trying to fill, an apprenticeship may be the ideal solution to your recruiting problems.

Hiring an apprentice is slightly different to your usual hiring process. Of course, you'll need to have an experienced supervisor to help the apprentice learn their trade, and be able to dedicate plenty of resources to helping the apprentice learn the ropes.

#4 Train your own staff

In this instance, we're assuming that you don't have any immediately obvious candidates amongst your employees for this hard-to-fill role - else you'd have already trained them to fill it.&

Instead, none of your staff work in a closely related field and you can't see that any of your employees would be a good fit.

Therefore, training your staff will require employees to jump far outside their comfort zone, or even commit to a complete career change. 

You'll also need to hire other staff to cover the employee's previous role.

In the long-term

The market should, eventually, resolve skills shortages like this as university and college courses adjust to add these in-demand skills to the curriculum. Established professionals may also choose to train themselves in these skills, given the value that the market places on them.

The government may also offer additional grants and other funding to help resolve skills shortages.

Problem #2: Attracting Candidates to Your Location

man with suitcase in city

In this instance, the skills shortage is local - not national (or international). The right candidates might exist, but they aren't interested in working in your area.

If you're working with a recruitment agency, you'll hear the same story every time: there are plenty of applications, but when they hear where you're based, they start to waver. You're left with far fewer applications than you'd like - and overall, the candidates are less suitable than if you'd have been based elsewhere.

There are two problems here: first, a lack of local labour; and second, your location doesn't appeal to candidates from elsewhere.

This may be for any number of reasons, such as no affordable housing, limited public transport options, and simply because your location is so isolated.

Ultimately you need your company, and the job role, to be bigger draws so that they offset the problems with your location.


#1 Boost your employer brand

Your employer brand is your reputation as an employer. It's what candidates think of when they hear your company name. It's a big factor in whether or not individual candidates choose to apply for your vacancies.

In practice, your employer brand is built and maintained by things like your careers page, your social media channels, Glassdoor reviews, and event attendance. 

Invest in new content and visuals to boost your employer brand. Look at the careers pages of companies you admire to see how they depict their brand to potential candidates. 

One thing: don't be tempted to mislead candidates about life at your company. If you're honest, applicants won't be disappointed when they start work at your company - your employee turnover will be lower.

#2 Rewrite job adverts

If you're certain that it's your location that's causing you recruitment problems, rewrite your job adverts to emphasise the benefits of the location whilst assuaging the biggest doubts about it.

Don't hide your location. If anything, be completely transparent about it so that you don't waste anyone's time —yours included.

#3 Start an employee referral scheme

If your employees like working at your company, they'll happily recommend it as a workplace to their friends and family.

Implementing a formal employee referral scheme is a fantastic way of overcoming local skills shortages. Your employees can explain to their network why your company is a great place to work, while easing their friends' concerns about your location.

Here's our complete guide to creating and managing employee referral programs, if you're unsure where to start. 

#4 Increase salary and benefits

A different approach is simply to boost pay, benefits, and perks to make your company a more attractive place to work. 

Check that you're offering the market rate, and look into a more generous array of benefits and perks that works for your budget.

#5 Use your network

Your network is a fantastic resource for recruitment. You can easily find suitable candidates for almost any role if your network is wide enough. This'll help you reach out to passive jobseekers who might otherwise have only paid attention to opportunities close at hand.

#6 Offer relocation help

If you have the funds available and your location is extremely remote (or at least far away from large cities), you may wish to set up a relocation scheme for new employees.

Under these schemes, the employer offers financial assistance to employees who need to move to be close enough to their new workplace. This could include covering moving costs, the purchase of new domestic goods for the new home, and a bridging loan.

If you're in the UK, there's an allowance associated with relocation, so be sure to check out all the details before creating your own scheme.

Problem #3: Unable to Offer a Competitive Salary

small selection of coins

If you can't offer a competitive salary, you'll struggle to fill vacancies. You're often left to settle for a substandard employee to plug the gap. There are, however, a few ways to try to find talent if you're struggling with finances.


#1 Focus on employer brand

If your company has a particularly good reputation amongst job seekers and the wider population, applicants may be willing to overlook lower salaries.

This could be due the prestige of your company (are you a Google or Facebook equivalent in your industry?), or what the work actually entails (charity work, working on a significant project etc). 

If your company boasts either of these selling points, update your careers page and other elements of your employer brand with them at the forefront. If you're working with a recruiter, ask them to focus on pushing this selling point to candidates. 

A word of caution: if you take this approach too far, you'll soon gain a reputation for underpaying your employees!

#2 Rethink the role

Instead of looking for an immediate replacement when an employees hands in their notice, take the time to review the role and its responsibilities before contacting a recruiter.

Perhaps the role is too broad, and you're asking too much from prospective candidates. Make a note of the most 'expensive' skills required, and those that you struggle to find in prospective candidates.

Rethink the requirements of the role so that the expensive and hard-to-fill skills are removed, if possible. Instead, for the former use the skills of existing employees, and for the latter, turn to freelancers or contractors.

This approach won't work in every situation, but it's important that you review the scope of job roles on a regular basis.

#3 Consider offering part-time work

Similarly, you could turn a full-time role into a part-time role, offering a relatively high hourly rate, but at a lower overall cost.

Part-time work isn't the solution for every role. In some cases, it might actually make it more difficult to find candidates. But in others, reduced hours will widen the net.

It all depends on the nature of the role as well as how your company communicates the role's benefits to potential candidates.

Problem #4: Your Company Has a Negative Reputation

business person stop sign

For the purposes of this article, we're assuming that your negative reputation doesn't reflect the reality of working at your company. If your negative reputation is accurate, it should be obvious that you need to fix these problems before you can make any real progress with your recruitment woes.


#1 Apologise and admit your mistakes - publicly

You should have done this immediately after the event that caused your reputation to tank, but if you haven't, do it now. 

If your negative reputation has been earnt over a series of years or months rather than being the result of a specific incident, you may not have anything to apologise for, but you may want to admit your mistakes.

Of course, a confession like this will only be effective if your actions back up your words and your company does change for the better.

We highly recommend that you communicate your apology in video form, and put a face to your business.

#2 Show that you've changed

Once you've changed your company for the better, you should make efforts to show that you've changed.

This can be via your careers page, social media channels, the press and elsewhere.

Be authentic. Remember that anyone reading or watching your content will be sceptical about its accuracy and your motivation.

Again, this approach will be most effective if you acknowledge the journey that you've made, instead of trying to erase your chequered history.

#3 Rebrand

Okay, so this is a rather drastic step - but if your brand has become so toxic that you're struggling to find anyone who wants to work for you, it could be your only option.

Of course, a rebrand takes time and there's no guarantee you'll be able shake off your bad reputation. Your company will still be under scrutiny during the rebranding process, and beyond.

But in the medium to long-term, a rebrand could reset your company's reputation - or at least give you a fighting chance of rebuilding it.

Final thoughts

In the UK, the majority of businesses struggle to find new employees.

And with Brexit on the horizon, it's unlikely that the country's skills shortages will ease. Therefore, it's vital that you work to understand and mitigate your recruitment problems, particularly for critical roles at your company - or they could start to scupper your business.

After more recruitment tips? Here's our complete guide to recruitment for small business...