'Phantom roles' may mask the true state of the UK job market

Posted: 14 January 2021

Author: Dylan Buckley


Last month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) painted a bleak picture of the UK job market with the hospitality and retail sectors being in a particularly bad shape.

ONS data showed the biggest-ever year-on-year decline in job vacancies in those sectors as the number of open positions fell by 49 percent and 52 per cent, respectively.

Since the country entered into another lockdown, the UK’s third, Dylan Buckley, co-founder of job discovery app DirectlyApply, warned Britain’s job market may be in far worse shape than most companies and applicants think.

“This is because job market data is often seriously flawed, if not totally false,” Buckley told City A.M. “When reports describe a ‘market divided into coronavirus winners and losers’, citing job creation in some areas and job losses in others, they are not telling the full story.”

This is primarily because what the data shows as ‘job vacancies’ are in fact often “phantom roles, generated by quirks in the recruitment advertising model,” Buckley explained.

Phantom roles

To illustrate his point, Buckley singled out a November report that showed that there were 52,000 job vacancies in teaching alone.

“But in fact, it is unlikely there were more than 10,000 jobs available, even when taking into account private-sector teaching jobs, such as tutors and nursery workers,” he said.

Based on government documents, the number of reported full-time teacher vacancies in state-funded schools rose from 389 in 2010 to 987 in 2018.

“This is one instance of an endemic problem, one that has become part of the fabric of recruitment advertising globally: the pay-per-click business model,” Buckley continued, as the majority of job sites generate revenue from job seekers clicking on job posts.

“More posts mean more clicks. The simplest way to increase the number of clicks is to share job posts with other job sites and agree to split the revenue generated from each click,” he said.

However, over the past ten years, Buckley said this practice has become “corrupted” and an initial job post is often shared by thousands of job sites, each of which categorize it as ‘unique’, thus inflating the number of vacancies reported.

“To exacerbate the problem further, recruitment agencies will buy, combined, hundreds of thousands of job credits and will post as many ‘jobs’ as possible so they can fish for candidates and stockpile CVs for a later date,” he noted.

“They will do this regardless of whether there is an actual vacancy at the end of the post; in contrast, when employers post a job themselves, they will typically post just one job ad per role,” Buckley added.

Shadow job market

The convenience offered by sites sharing job posts with each other, effectively acting as search engines for job ads, is offset by the fact that these sites exist in a shadow job market, where a significant number of jobs are not real.

“Jobseekers are given false hope because it seems as if there are more jobs available than could ever feasibly exist,” Buckley said. “In some cases, people will even retrain in the belief that there are vacancies to fill. “

For example, over the course of the lockdown, UCAS revealed that more than 21,000 graduates signed up to take part in teacher training programmes. The data that will have informed their decision to do that, in at least some cases, is “very likely” to be inaccurate, he argued.

“This may not be the good news that everyone wants to hear at a time like this, but employment data in the UK too often obscures a gloomier reality,” concluded Buckley.

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