In 1805, Britain was famously, and contemptuously, dismissed by Napoleon Bonaparte as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. Like many other attempted historical putdowns, this label has been taken as a badge of honour by many Brits for the past 210 years, to describe the pride and self-sufficiency of the British workforce. But to what extent is this still true? There is no denying that the UK economy has changed enormously over the past 20 years, and that the ongoing economic recovery is making further changes to the way Brits do business and make a living.

The latest unemployment figures released by the Office of National Statistics show the jobless total standing at 5.1% for the period October to December 2015. This is a significant decrease from the most recent peak of 8.5% in September 2011, and is the lowest level since December 2007. In other words, since the previous figures were released in September 2015, an additional 205,000 people have found work, split roughly equally between those who are employed and self-employed.

Where are these people working?

At either end of the skills spectrum there are two noticeable trends. The first is the huge growth of the creative sector, which now employs one in eleven UK workers. Fuelled by the continuing expansion of the digital economy, these creative sector employees occupy diverse roles ranging from advertising account managers, creative directors and content marketers, to designers, press officers and IT support workers. There has also been expansion in the number of skilled public-sector employees, especially in the NHS. On the ground this is manifested in an increased number of paramedics, psychologists and specialised social workers, the latter often being self-employed and funded on a per project basis.

Expansion in the low skilled service sector

At the other end of the scale is a continued demand for low skilled, fairly low paid workers. According to the Jobs Economist Consultancy, no fewer than 1.1 million workers were employed as sales and retail assistants in the retail industry. These workers are joined by around 600,000 cleaners and domestic staff, and 450,000 catering industry workers, a figure that includes bar staff, waiters/waitresses, kitchen personnel and catering assistants.

So in a very real sense, Britain still is a nation of shopkeepers, or at least retail assistants. The good news is that for employers in the catering and retail sectors, there is plenty of scope for expansion. Employers are finding it easy to create and fill vacancies, opening the door to increased business growth. It suggests a self-confident society in recovery, with the spare cash to support a growing economy of shops, cafes and bars. So far so good.

Tackling the skills shortage

On the other hand, there is definitely a skill shortage at the upper end of the economy. Creative and digital industry employers often struggle to secure the talent required to keep up with the needs of their business.

The solution? Having worked with a wide range of UK employers throughout the financial crisis and ensuing recovery, we know from experience that the talent is out there. Employers in all sectors are catching on to the importance of developing the competencies of their staff and investing in up skilling their workforce. This trend will not only hopefully see continued numbers of people in work, but also a growth in opportunities to develop and contribute to a skilled and expanding economy.

Tricia Hay

Tricia Hay is Owner, Director of First Base Employment Limited