The Cambridge economy has never been more prosperous than it is at present, with estimated economic growth rates at 2.2% for 2018 that would make it the fastest growing city economy in the UK. Such impressive growth is driven by the Cambridge workforce that boast the highest percentage with qualifications above NVGQ Level 4, illustrating their advanced skill level. What is more, the workers responsible for such monumental output are adequately rewarded with the best pay in the UK outside of London. Yet Cambridge employers face what is, based on this initial analysis, the slightly confusing problem of having relative difficulty filling their available job vacancies. On the surface, employers in a city that Glassdoor named the best in the UK to work in as recently as 2016 and has the attraction of soaring wage rates should not in theory have to work so hard to secure the ideal candidate. However, if we probe deeper into the situation there emerge problems that can go some way towards explaining why finding the right candidate for many Cambridge firms is proving to be so difficult.
The Evolution of The Cambridge Economy
The strength of the Cambridge economy in the last few decades has been buoyed by a number of different factors. The movement of companies such as Amazon, AstraZeneca and Apple into offices within Cambridge is a more recent phenomenon that is a result of the first of these factors; a near fifty-year long process that has cemented Cambridge as the UK’s centre for technological innovation and scientific research. The ‘Cambridge cluster’ of science and business parks that include Cambridge Science Park and St. John’s Innovation Centre amongst many others, is now the largest technology cluster in Europe. The Cambridge Cluster’s ability to attract the most modern and innovative technology and research-based companies has culminated in the creation of 57,000 Cambridge-based jobs. The annual turnover of these companies totals £13 billion. The Cambridge University was influential in the founding of the original Cambridge Science Park in 1970 that kickstarted the ‘cluster’ and is at the heart of many other institutions that contribute to the success of the economy. Institutions such as the publishing press Cambridge University Press, which alone employs 2,200 people, have been founded as subsidiaries of the university. In addition, the importance of the University’s storied history and picturesque grounds can also not be understated in being largely responsible for the income created by an estimated 5.3 million tourists that visit the city every year.
The diversity of the organisations active in Cambridge is also hugely important in the success of the economy. Along with the aforementioned large companies active within the Scientific research, Technology, Education and Publishing sectors, there are many other large companies within the Healthcare, Legal and Engineering sectors for which all require extensive administrative and office support. This is not to mention the huge number of thriving restaurants and bars throughout the city. The availability of job opportunities from a great variety of sectors for all candidates with different skill sets and experience is a major reason why Cambridge also has the lowest unemployment in the country. This is the obvious reason that would make Cambridge’s very low availability of candidates seem reasonable. Yet with the attractiveness of the jobs and the companies available in the city as well as multiple areas within and around Cambridge being named in the best places to the live in the UK, it prompts the question of why more candidates aren’t as willing to apply from outside Cambridge as they should be.
The Unsustainability of Cambridge’s Development
The reasons for this all stem mainly from the unsustainability of Cambridge’s economic development. Prior to 1970 and the formation of the ‘Cambridge Cluster’ the city’s population was much smaller and the vast majority of jobs lower skilled. For this reason, Cambridge’s ancient infrastructure remained adequate and property prices more affordable for the average person. However, since the turn of the millennium this no longer holds true. The economy has expanded faster than the city has been able to adapt. The average house price in Cambridge now stands at over £450,000 due to high level demand without the availability of houses to match. Such prices are far above the national average and enough to make people reluctant to invest so much in relocating to Cambridge. The alternative option to commute is almost as unattractive thanks to outdated roads which cause congestion that adds as much as an hour onto what should be 20 to 30-minute commutes. The attempts to expand these roads have also been extremely problematic, with the possibility of commuting via the A14 seeming a daunting task to most. These are the central issues that make relocation to Cambridge for the higher skilled workers a lot less appealing than you might think. With many of the higher skilled jobs in Cambridge inaccessible to the majority of those locally based without the necessary qualifications, skill set or experience, the unaffordability and congestion of the city does not make recruiting for these positions any easier.
Problems That Are Problematic Only For The Higher Paid?
However, it is important to also consider how the trickle-down effect for the lower paid jobs is very real in this situation. It is not just the higher paid positions that become less desirable. The cost of living hike caused primarily by the highest paid affects the entire Cambridge working population. The meteoric rise of the ‘Cambridge Cluster’ has created a wage gap between many of the high-skilled jobs within the ‘Cambridge Cluster’ organisations and the more standard, less skilled jobs undertaken by the majority of Cambridge’s population. The higher paid that are willing to pay the high asking rate for houses, amenities, food and drink etc. ensure these asking prices do not fall. The greater impact upon the lower paid in this instance is obvious. It is for the lower paid that the city is truly ‘unaffordable’ and therefore the prospect of employment within Cambridge to many of these workers is less compelling. It is unsurprising that many of these candidates consider how much more of what is earned is saved in alternative cities where the average price of meal and drinks out for example is much more reasonable. Therefore, more candidates than should be are compelled to move elsewhere.
Perhaps what greater concerns potential applicants to Cambridge based jobs however, other than the aforementioned painful commutes, is the greater level of risk attached to leaving stable employment in the Cambridge area. With unemployment at just 2.77% in the Cambridgeshire area, the majority of candidates recruited are still in employment elsewhere. Many are much more hesitant to entertain the idea of a new position due to the astronomical rents and monthly bills that they face, especially if they have a family to support. The Greater Cambridge Partnership in a recent survey found over 75% of those asked to be unhappy with the Cambridge housing situation, with 44% citing the prices of rent as their main issue. In order for a candidate to move on from their current job they have to be absolutely sold on the new position due to the need for stable income to effectively grapple with sky high rents. This is yet another obstacle for recruiters, limiting the availability of candidates.
Reasons To Be Positive About The Future?
Cambridge more than possibly any other city demands highly skilled and qualified workers that cannot be sourced from those Cambridgeshire-based alone. The city requires these workers that are in short supply to relocate and at present, fewer than should be attracted are actually making the move. Those that are willing to pay overinflated housing prices and ensure these are maintained for the foreseeable future or contribute to the congested commutes each morning make the city less desirable for jobs in all sectors for workers of all kinds. The more the city is domineered by the highly paid, the less desirable it becomes to the 76% of workers whose positions do not require a degree. The commutes will only become more troublesome, the meals out more expensive and the houses more unaffordable. The solution is more affordable housing, more efficient transport and an overhaul of the existing infrastructure. There are some positive developments such as the proposed metro linking Cambridge to Haverhill and Mildenhall and a proposed 33,500 new homes to be constructed in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. However, these plans face difficulties and will take time. Therefore, for now it looks as though the 0.06 available applicants for every available vacancy in Cambridge is a figure that, unfortunately for local recruiters, is unlikely to rise any time soon.