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Population decline at heart of staffing issues in Caithness and Sutherland

By David Richardson

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Business Focus by David Richardson

David Richardson
David Richardson

Since first revealing that staff shortages were harming many Highland businesses some 10 years ago, repeated FSB surveys have demonstrated the growing severity of the situation.

By 2022, six in 10 Highland employers were short-staffed, many having to cut hours, services or both – an all-too familiar situation in Caithness and Sutherland.

Why the problem? Well, the "Great Resignation" saw people leave the workforce after the pandemic, and the reduction in overseas workers, a group much more important to our region’s seasonal visitor economy than to the rest of Scotland, have certainly played their parts, but the big problem is demographic decline.

For while Inverness’s population is fairly buoyant, many rural areas are seeing their populations both age and, particularly for younger people, decline.

Highland Council’s secondary school roll forecasts for the 15 years from 2022-23 anticipate a 6.9 per cent decline across the Highlands as a whole and a frightening 18.8 per cent decline in Caithness and Sutherland.

So, what’s to be done? Well, in the short term the UK government could make it easier for employers to recruit overseas by, for example, including EU countries within its Youth Mobility Scheme, but this doesn’t solve population decline.

We really must increase the number of young people and families choosing to make the Highlands their homes by making this region an even better place to live, work and play.

Breaking down remoteness barriers, including transport and digital, and providing affordable accommodation for all are key, and that takes a lot of money.

But we – public, private, third sectors and residents – can achieve far more by pulling together than we can divided, and we must hope that the Scottish Government’s new Addressing Depopulation Action Plan will lead the way in increasing cooperation and collaboration.

As a first step, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Fiona Hyslop MSP, has given her government’s rock-solid commitment to dualling the A9 from Perth to Inverness by 2035 – a giant step forward in tackling a crucial "remoteness barrier".

But if a fortnight is a long time in politics, what about 16 years? We cannot relax – maintaining the pressure to get the job done is vital.

  • David Richardson is the regional development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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