SOMETIMES, you need to get away from your home comforts or your office desk, and see a little of the world, before an issue really smacks you in the face.
So it was last weekend when I had a short break to see friends in the Isle of Man.
It’s a beautiful place, especially when the sun shines as it did for me. It had been 25 years since I last visited, and I was mightily impressed with its enhanced infrastructure and beauty, particularly its spacious roads and pavements.
The island was once a popular tourist destination for British and Irish people in the days before cheap air travel, but it has managed to pivot into a finance and trading hub, while still retaining its natural charm.
I had a great trip, but time and again, I was given reminders of one of the big issues facing both that island’s economy, and the economy on this larger island beside it: The recruitment crisis.
Basically, there are too many jobs to do - particularly casual employment in retail and the service industry - and too few people willing to fill them.
Now, it could be argued that this is one area where we should be thankful that the reminders of the dire economic days of the 1970s are not being revisited.
Just like in that downtrodden decade, inflation is now sky-high and rising, there is a fuel crisis, and countries’ debts are soaring. Abba have even made something of a comeback to add to the vibe.
However, unemployment was also a huge problem in the 1970s, and, despite fears the pandemic would lengthen dole queues, that simply hasn’t happened now.
Unemployment has fallen to below pre-pandemic levels, and what we have instead is a full-blown recruitment crisis.
As businesses in retail and the service sector emerge from Covid and try to roar back to life, their recovery is stalling because they cannot get the staff. Short-term contract work and casual labour is suffering a chronic shortage.
This is what I witnessed time and again on my break away, and the problem is acute, growing, and having a severe impact on society and the economy.
The warnings began when my flight from Dublin was delayed for two hours due, we were informed, to shortages of ground personnel at Edinburgh Airport for an earlier flight.
The delay was exacerbated as I had arrived very early at Dublin following the stories of huge queues at security desks and people missing flights there due to... staff shortages.
(On my flight home, there was a further 75-minute delay due, again, to knock-on effects from the lack of ground staff at Edinburgh Airport. This clearly is not unusual)
When I finally arrived at the airport on the Isle of Man, I went outside and waited for a bus to take me to the capital, Douglas. I had checked beforehand and they were frequent, every 20 minutes.
After 45 minutes - one lady next to me had waited for an hour - someone pointed to a poster stating that, from that day, buses would be less frequent owing to a shortage of drivers; there was no more information than that, but clearly we were suffering the effects of this new policy.
(I encountered the same problem on the bus back to the airport, which finally arrived after another 45-minute wait, and was so packed, I was worried it might begin to resemble those trains in India where people hang on every which way for dear life!)
On the island, several times I saw signs stating that a cafe or restaurant was shut or reducing its hours owing to staff shortages. One businessman in his sixties told me the crisis was the worst he had ever known in his lifetime.
At one pub, a staff member I chatted to told me the busy TT Races the previous week had left them exhausted from working - and I kid you not - 105-hour weeks; 15 hour shifts, seven days a week.
The staff agreed to do the hours because they knew how important that week’s takings were to their business, and they were well recompensed, but even Margaret Thatcher would have to admit this is no way to run an economy (or a society - though she wouldn’t have used that word!)
It was startling to see this issue come up so frequently. Virtually every shop, pub and restaurant was looking for staff, and many of those working were often stressed as they tried their best to cope with the extra workload.
Laughably, some call this scenario an ‘employee’s market’, since the worker can pick and choose their jobs and hours, and always move on to someone who will pay them more for doing less, while their bosses try their best to retain the good ones.
But this is hardly ideal for management or employees, is it? Being over-worked and over-stretched at every turn.
A similar situation is happening here in Cork, with many companies desperate to recruit, and having to curtail opening hours when they cannot do so.
The staffing crisis is another huge problem facing our Government, and one few could have foreseen after the pandemic.
I wrote here back last autumn about the cost of living crisis coming down the tracks, even before the war in Ukraine when energy prices rocketed.
I also wrote here a few weeks ago about the current trend of customers being treated not like kings, as the saying goes, but more like the enemy.
Now we have a recruitment crisis, and the fear is that a lack of workers will send our economy into a tailspin.
How does a government address this issue? How do we make casual and short-term labour more attractive to people?
The only short-term fix I can think of, is to slash taxes, and make working, and working for longer hours, more attractive to staff.
It’s hardly an ideal solution given the state of our economy, but perhaps more people paying less taxes would even itself out and not be too damaging for the country’s ailing coffers.
Lower taxes could also fuel even higher inflation, but perhaps this could be introduced instead of other policies such as offering hand-outs for energy bills.
We have to send a message to people who worked from home during the pandemic, or who stayed at home twiddling their thumbs while being given State money, that the workplace is a rewarding place to be. We have to entice people there.
Until then, it’s only fair that we consumers treat the over-worked staff in these establishments with respect and patience.
Yes, many are not well trained and are eminently not suited to a career in the service industry, but they are all we have. A thin red line that is growing thinner.