Hiring figures released this week show a continued slump in contractor recruitment, even as unemployment continues to fall year-on-year. The monthly data, released by APSCo, a recruiters’ trade body, in conjunction with the Staffing Industry Association (SIA), show that although permanent placements in January were up 10% on 2017, the number of contract vacancies fell by 9%. Meanwhile the number of contractors currently out on assignment dropped by 16%, led by a seeming collapse in the IT profession of 38% from the same time last year.

The difference between permanent and contract recruitment is marked, according to SIA’s John Nurther, who commented: “There continues to be a clear split in demand for skilled professionals as staffing firms are finding it easy to place candidates into permanent roles but much more difficult to fill temporary and contract positions.”

The relative fall in demand for freelancers is not evenly spread, with significant differences between sectors. Hardest up are marketers, who face a drop in vacancies of 21%, while IT professionals are competing for 8% fewer roles than in January 2017. Engineering contractors fared better, seeing just a 5% fall in vacancies for their field, despite a tough month for many caused by Carillion’s collapse.

Contractors in one particular sector have managed to escape the slump. Contract vacancies in financial services actually rose by 2% year-on-year. APSCo’s chief executive Ann Swain sees the increase in demand as part of a positive trend for one of the UK’s biggest export industries. “The fact that the Bank of America has extended its London lease for another 10 years in commitment to the UK post-Brexit is indicative of the confidence that is driving this long-term approach to hiring in the sector. Looking forward, with recent research suggesting that financial services is one of the sectors that will be impacted least by Brexit, we expect this positivity to continue,” she said.

Hope for an end to downward trends comes from the widening tech skills gap, which should boost demand at least for those in certain roles. Last year it was reported that up to 43% of tech jobs went unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates, so contractors with in-demand skills, or able to reskill should be boosted in finding roles.

Tom Hadley of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation certainly thinks so: “The feedback from recruiters is that one of the overriding challenges remains finding the right candidates for the available vacancies. The fact that more people are now seeking work could help this situation. However, the biggest issue is the skills mismatch the country is facing,” he said, commenting on reports of vacancies rising even in the face of higher unemployment. For those contractors struggling to find a role then, the answer, perhaps is to invest in new skillsets to match hirers’ needs.

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