Great Jobs: recognising the essential jobs that keep the UK working

City & Guilds’ research finds that despite key workers seeing the nation through the pandemic, the UK’s most vital industries are being threatened by growing skills shortages, as poor reputations and concerns about low pay turn off potential new recruits.

02 February 2022

Critical industries at risk of collapse as Brits shun key worker jobs

Sectors critical to putting food on the table and looking after the health of our people are on a cliff edge as working age adults shun many of the essential jobs that keep the UK running – from food production and logistics to health and social care.

  • Just a quarter of working age adults would work in social care (25%) and healthcare (26%) and 22% would work in food production, agriculture or animal care
  • 3.1 million key worker job openings expected in next five years - making up 50% of openings in UK job market. But only around a quarter of Brits would consider working in many of those roles.
  • Poor reputation and low pay expectations fuel unattractiveness, as cost-of-living skyrockets
  • Industries such as construction, which only 9% of women said they would consider working in, will need to attract more diverse workforces to help fill vacant roles

That’s according to new research from leading skills development organisation, City & Guilds. The research finds that despite key workers seeing the nation through the pandemic, the UK’s most vital industries are being threatened by growing skills shortages, as poor reputations and concerns about low pay turn off potential new recruits.

The new research on the jobs that keep the country running – based on an Opinium survey of 10,000 working age people in the UK and economic analysis from labour market economists Emsi Burning Glass UK – found that, on average, only a quarter (25%) of the UK’s talent pool are interested in key worker jobs in any one of the essential industries  that power our nation. This is despite essential roles accounting for half of all UK employment opportunities, demonstrating the yawning gap between the jobs we need people to do, and their desire to do them.

With more than three million essential job openings expected in the next five years, including 340,000 brand new jobs, many employers, who are already reporting dire skills shortages, are set to struggle even further in the years ahead. Particularly, with additional constraints placed on the labour market by Coronavirus and Brexit.

Some sectors are more likely to be at risk than others. Construction could be most badly impacted with less than a fifth (17%) stating that they would consider working in the sector. Just over a fifth (22%) would consider working in food production, agriculture and animal care jobs or transport and logistics (23%), And a quarter say they would work in health (26%) and social care (25%).

Kirstie Donnelly, CEO City & Guilds, comments: “While the pandemic may have shone a light on the many jobs that are critical to the running of our country, our research demonstrates the undeniable fact that low salaries, unattractive or inflexible working conditions and a general lack of respect for these critical jobs is having a catastrophic impact on the ability of employers to fill these roles.

“In the face of a growing labour crisis that is impacting these vital industries and wider society, we need to collectively take a long, hard look at how we can make these jobs more attractive. In the future, we need to do more than simply clap for carers, we desperately need to re-evaluate the way we recognise these roles as a nation. To do this, we must improve careers advice to make people aware of the range of roles available within their own skillsets, and the training available, as well as the opportunities to progress in these sectors.

Low pay and a lack of relevant skills, experience or qualifications are two key reasons putting people off working in these jobs. Unsociable hours are also considered a major turn-off for healthcare (17%) and social care (18%) roles.

Although the research found that, on average, essential workers only earn around £500 less per year than those working in non-essential roles, some are more badly affected than others. Compared to the average annual earnings for a UK worker (£28,100), salaries drop particularly amongst those working in retail (-£12,730) and social care (£9,508), where 31% and 23% of people respectively cited pay as a reason not to work in the sector. 

On the flipside, essential jobs in other sectors, such as construction and energy and utilities, offer higher than average earnings but suffer in the popularity stakes overall, with far fewer women open to working in these industries: nearly three times the number of men (25%) would consider working in construction compared to women (9%). Addressing the underlying issues impacting the attractiveness of these roles to different groups could open up a wider, more diverse talent pool.

While many essential workers say they are proud of their roles (73%), the vast majority (87%) call for improvements to the overall reputation of their role, and over half (53%) say better pay would improve that reputation– rising to 74% of those working in social care.

Kirstie Donnelly continues: “We need to address the poor image that is discouraging people from considering these roles by giving jobs the respect and remuneration they deserve in the future. With such fierce competition for talent, private companies are often offering much larger starting salaries, meaning that these essential industries, often in the public sector, just cannot compete. To fight back in the war on talent, government and employers need to work together to consider other ways to make essential jobs more attractive, including offering opportunities for skills development and more flexible working patterns.”

The full report Great Jobs: Recognising the essential jobs that keep the UK working which includes further findings, recommendations and commitments from City & Guilds can be found below.

Download the full report


City & Guilds and Emsi Burning Glass created the Essential Worker list based on the Governments list of ‘Essential Worker’ roles for Covid-19 testing, published 25 February 2021. Construction roles were added to this list in recognition of the current housing crisis and major infrastructure projects currently in the works.

Emsi Burning Glass translated these roles into the closest matching 4-digit SOC codes. This resulted in 181 SOC codes being classified as an Essential Worker – taking the total to 49% of all SOC codes.

For the consumer research, City & Guilds commissioned Opinium to survey 10,001 working age adults across the UK (aged 18-67 and not retired). Fieldwork took place from 25th November to 6th December 2021.

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