You could be forgiven for being a little confused about the exact state of the job market this week.

Today’s headlines paint a gloomy picture with reports that unemployment figures are close to a 17 year high. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) update does, however, also point to a rise in private sector jobs, which have outstripped the number of jobs lost in the public sector for the first time in a year, suggesting an upturn may at last be on its way.

This more optimistic news is borne out by a number of recruitment company surveys released in the last few days. The latest Reed Job Index points to the biggest rise in vacancies for two years, while an Adecco survey suggests two-fifths of companies will be looking to increase headcount in 2012.

These more positive figures are certainly borne out by what I’ve been noticing on the ground. The number of job roles being advertised on the various professional networking sites I belong to have increased noticeably, while people I know who have been job-hunting for a while are suddenly getting offers.

The reality is that no-one can really say for sure what’s likely to happen – and the best employers can do is to stay close to their own job market and perhaps start paying a bit more attention to the sticky issue of employee retention.

Too busy fighting fires?

The problem is that in difficult economic times, businesses are often forced to move into fire-fighting mode. Longer-term employee retention considerations go out of the window as everyone struggles to keep their heads above water and cope with heavy workloads with limited resources. This is particularly true in SMEs, where there are typically fewer bodies available to cope with the raft of conflicting demands.

In amongst the general melee, it’s easy for the issue of employee engagement to get forgotten. When unemployment is high, some may take the view that people should be grateful they’ve still got a job and should put up and shut up. That’s a view that can, however, come back to bite employers when the economic gloom begins to lift.

Valuable employees, who have been keeping their heads down in a downturn, suddenly acquire the confidence to start looking around elsewhere. Indeed, there’s plenty of research to show that during a recession, a significant proportion of employees have ‘one foot out the door’, and are just waiting for the mood to lift before they head off to pastures new.

Time to recognise the long-termers?

Often, it’s the most talented people who will leave the biggest hole in the business, that fall into that category. Just when things are looking up and you’re ready to go for growth, the people most likely to take you there have had a better offer and are sailing off into the sunset. This is where employers need to consider recognising the loyalty of long-serving staff – especially if they’re vitally contributing to the business.

Savvy employers will, of course, have realised this in advance and will have been doing their best to make their key people feel valuable and concentrate their efforts of employee retention, even if belts have been tightened and they haven’t been able to provide the usual enticements of a pay rise or bonus.

For those who are reading this and looking round their workforce nervously, it’s hopefully not too late to let your employees know that you see them as an integral part of your future growth strategy.

It’s important to communicate clearly with people about future plans and where you see them fitting in, to show that you are willing to invest in their development and to find creative ways to reward staff, even if you can’t yet manage a salary increase.

Regular appraisals are also a great opportunity to get a clearer understanding of employees own goals, strengths and desires and to find ways of aligning these with business objectives. People who are allowed to play to their strengths and can see their contribution is making a difference are much more likely to stay loyal to the business – thus maintain healthy levels of employee retention.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.