Vacancies and jobs in the UK: March 2021

Estimates of the number of vacancies and jobs for the UK.

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23 March 2021

The effect of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on our capacity means we have reviewed the existing labour market releases and will be suspending some publications.

This will protect the delivery and quality of our remaining labour market outputs as well as ensuring we can respond to new demands as a direct result of the coronavirus. More details about the impact on labour market outputs can be found in our statement.

Email Roger Smith

Release date:
23 March 2021

Next release:
20 April 2021

2. Main points

  • The number of job vacancies in December 2020 to February 2021 remained more than 200,000 lower than a year previously, and the number of jobs fell by 1.2 million jobs in the year to December 2020; the arts, entertainment and recreation and accommodation and food services industries continue to be hit hardest on both measures.

  • In December 2020 to February 2021 there were an estimated 601,000 job vacancies, which is a 26.8% (220,000) fall compared with a year ago; growth in the number of vacancies has slowed and experimental single-month statistics indicate a fall in early February, although experimental statistics of online job adverts provided by Adzuna suggest a potential acceleration into March.

  • The weakening in job vacancies to February 2021 is more evident among smaller companies; businesses employing one to nine employees had increased vacancies at a faster rate than other-sized businesses in the second half of 2020, but they had 10.7% fewer vacancies in December 2020 to February 2021 compared with a quarter ago. 

  • Lockdown restrictions continue to affect jobs and vacancies in two industry sectors more than others, with the number of vacancies in accommodation and food services industry down 79.8% (73,000) from a year ago and 45.1% from the previous quarter; vacancies in arts, entertainment and recreation are down 72.6% (16,000) from a year ago and 37.1% from the previous quarter.

  • The total number of workforce jobs in the UK in December 2020 was estimated at 34.4 million, down by 1.2 million from a year ago, with employee jobs down 722,000; between September and December the quarterly fall in jobs slowed to 196,000, which is less than a half of the fall observed in each of the previous two quarters.

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3. Vacancies for December 2020 to February 2021

The monthly Vacancy Survey asks businesses for the number of external vacancies on a specified count date (always a Friday) that falls in the first eight days of each month.

In December 2020 to February 2021, there were an estimated 601,000 vacancies. This is 220,000 (26.8%) fewer than the estimated 821,000 vacancies a year earlier, prior to the start of coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing measures.

Vacancies declined sharply from April 2020, at the start of the pandemic. This was initially followed by signs of a quick recovery, but the recovery slowed in late autumn as further restrictions and national lockdowns were introduced. The increase in vacancies over the latest quarter was 44,000, which is a slowdown relative to recent periods. There had been a quarterly increase of 69,000 in the three months to January 2021, 93,000 in the previous period and more than 100,000 in each of the three periods prior to that.

The headline vacancy estimates are based on three-month averages, which naturally involve some time lag. Insight into trends in February 2021 alone is provided by two experimental sources. Firstly, single-month vacancy estimates (see Strengths and limitations), available in Dataset X06, indicate that there were 31% fewer vacancies in February 2021 (reference date 5 February) than in February 2020, which is the weakest monthly figure since September 2020. Meanwhile, Adzuna Online job advert estimates in our Coronavirus and thelatest indicators for the UK economy release showed some strengthening in online job adverts at the start of February (the number being 20% lower than a year earlier, compared with 28% in the first week in January). The differing pattern between the Vacancy Survey and Adzuna reflects, in part, that smaller companies (whose vacancies are less likely to be advertised online or feature in the Adzuna estimates) reduced their vacancies at the start of the year, as described under Figure 3.

The Adzuna estimates also provide an early insight into a possible strengthening of vacancies later in February and into the first two weeks of March 2021. However, the Adzuna estimates are experimental and should be interpreted with caution, most notably because they cover vacancies advertised online only.

Of the 19 industries for which the Office for National Statistics publishes vacancy estimates, all but three (construction, public administration and defence and compulsory social security, and electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning) have seen an annual fall in number of vacancies since the start of the pandemic. Particularly large falls in vacancies have been seen in the following industries:

  • accommodation and food services (down 80% from a year ago)
  • arts, entertainment and recreation (down 73%)
  • wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles (down 44%)

During December 2020 to February 2021, most industries saw an increase in vacancies compared with a quarter earlier, but each of accommodation and food services, arts, entertainment and recreation, real estate activities, and transport and storage experienced a fall. The additional lockdowns and restrictions across the UK at the end of the year will have affected these falls, although in the case of transport and storage the fall is also affected by increased vacancies in the previous quarter in the run-up to Christmas.

Among industries that saw a growth in vacancies over the quarter, the most notable was public administration and defence and compulsory social security (to be up by over 60% from a year ago). This was driven by temporary recruitment for the 2021 Census.

The ratio of vacancies to employee jobs is highest (3.1 per 100) in the electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning industry, and human health and social work activities. It is now lowest (0.8) in each of accommodation and food services, and arts, entertainment and recreation, both of which had a rate of over 3.0 prior to the pandemic.

Following an initial fall in vacancies of over 50% in all company size bands during early summer 2020, the smallest companies (employing one to nine employees) started to increase their vacancies much more quickly than other size bands. However, vacancies in these smaller companies fell by 10.7% in December 2020 to February 2021 compared with the previous quarter, while larger companies continued to add vacancies. This may reflect greater flexibility among smaller companies in adjusting vacancies to the latest economic and social conditions.

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4. Jobs for December 2020

Figure 4 shows estimates of workforce jobs for December 2020. The estimates are provided from various sources. Those of employee jobs in the private sector are drawn from surveys relating to a reference date of 11 December 2021, whereas those of self-employment jobs are drawn from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which covers a three-month period from start of November 2020 to end of January 2021. As outlined in Section 7: Measuring the data, LFS responses are weighted to official 2018-based population projections on demographic trends that pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. In our Coronavirus and the impact on payroll employment article we analyse the population totals used in the LFS weighting process and state our intention to make adjustments. Rates published from the LFS remain robust; however, levels and changes in levels should be used with caution.

In December 2020 there were an estimated 34.4 million jobs in the UK. This represents a fall of 196,000 from September 2020, following larger falls in workforce jobs in each of June 2020 (compared with March) of 460,000, and September 2020 (compared with June) of 548,000.

The December 2020 estimate represents a fall of 1,242,000 jobs from December 2019.

The total number of jobs includes both employee jobs and self-employment jobs. The employee jobs estimate fell by 100,000 from September and by 722,000 from December 2019. In comparison, the annual fall in number of employees on payroll reported in the Earnings and employment from Pay As You Earn Real Time Information, seasonally adjusted dataset is 793,000. Although the two estimates are based on different definitions which reflect that any employee might have more than one paid job, the two series display general consistency.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected jobs differently across industries. In comparison with a year earlier, four industries had more jobs in December 2020, these being public administration and defence, compulsory social security (a rise of 54,000): real estate activities (a rise of 24,000); financial and insurance activities (up 5,000); and professional, scientific and technical services with a rise of under 2,000.

In contrast, most industries have seen a contraction in the number of jobs. In terms of number of jobs lost, the hardest-hit sectors have been accommodation and food services with a fall of 289,000 (11.4%) since December 2019; administration and support services activities with a fall of 212,000 (7.0%); and wholesale and retail trade with a fall of 149,000 (3%). However, the hardest-hit sector in terms of percentage of jobs lost has been arts, entertainment and recreation, down 13.3% (which equates to 141,000 jobs).

Some industries have shown stronger signs of recent recovery than others. Both construction, and administrative and support service activities showed some growth in job numbers from September 2020 to December 2020, following notable falls earlier in 2020. However, quarterly falls were seen in both accommodation and food services (down 122,000 or 5.2%) and arts, entertainment and recreation (down 25,000 or 2.7%). Figure 5 plots quarterly changes indexed to March, immediately prior to COVID-19-related restrictions.

Note that detail about employment in the public sector is provided in our separate publication Public Sector Employment.

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5. Vacancies and jobs data

Vacancies by industry
Dataset VACS02 | Released 23 March 2021
Estimates of vacancies by industry (Standard Industrial Classification 2007).

Workforce jobs summary
Dataset JOBS01 | Released 23 March 2021
Estimates of jobs by type of job (including employee jobs, self-employment jobs, HM Forces and government-supported trainees).

Workforce jobs by industry
Dataset JOBS02 | Released 23 March 2021
Estimates of jobs by industry (Standard Industrial Classification 2007).

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6. Glossary


Vacancies are defined as positions for which employers are actively seeking recruits from outside their business or organisation. The estimates are based on the Vacancy Survey; this is a survey of employers designed to provide estimates of the stock of vacancies across the economy, excluding agriculture, forestry and fishing (a small sector for which the collection of estimates would not be practical).


A job is an activity performed for an employer or customer by a worker in exchange for payment, usually in cash, or in kind, or both. The number of jobs is not the same as the number of people in employment. This is because a person can have more than one job. The number of jobs is the sum of employee jobs from employer surveys, self- employment jobs from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), those in HM Forces and government-supported trainees. The number of people in employment is measured by the LFS; these estimates are available in our Employment in the UK release.

A more detailed glossary is available.

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7. Measuring the data


For more information on how labour market data sources are affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, see the article published on 6 May 2020, which details some of the challenges that we have faced in producing estimates at this time.

An article, published on 11 December 2020, compares our labour market data sources and discusses some of the main differences.

Our latest data and analysis on the impact of the coronavirus on the UK economy and population are available on our dedicated coronavirus page. This is the hub for all special coronavirus-related publications, drawing on all available data. In response to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, we are working to ensure that we continue to publish economic statistics. For more information, please see COVID-19 and the production of statistics.

Impact on production of vacancy and workforce job estimates

Because of social distancing measures leading to the temporary closure of businesses across the UK, there have been some difficulties in collecting data using the Vacancy Survey and the Short-Term Employment Surveys.

Survey response rates were lower than is typical. To protect the quality of our output, we have used alternative sources where possible to inform data. We have used Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) section-level indications from the Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey (BICS), as well as survey contributor-level comments provided to us over the telephone or electronically, as a guide on whether businesses are operational and likely, or not, to be actively recruiting and to confirm employment figures.

End of EU exit transition period

As the UK enters into a new Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU, the UK statistical system will continue to produce and publish our wide range of economic and social statistics and analysis. We are committed to continued alignment with the highest international statistical standards, enabling comparability both over time and internationally, and ensuring the general public, statistical users and decision- makers have the data they need to be informed.

As the shape of the UK's future statistical relationship with the EU becomes clearer over the coming period, the Office for National Statistics is making preparations to assume responsibilities that as part of our membership of the EU, and during the transition period, were delegated to the statistical office of the EU, Eurostat. This includes responsibilities relating to international comparability of economic statistics, deciding what international statistical guidance to apply in the UK context and to provide further scrutiny of our statistics and sector classification decisions.

In applying international statistical standards and best practice to UK economic statistics, we will draw on the technical advice of experts in the UK and internationally, and our work will be underpinned by the UK's well- established and robust framework for independent official statistics, set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Further information on our proposals will be made available later this year.

We will continue to produce our labour market statistics in line with the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Statistics and in accordance with International Labour Organization (ILO) definitions and agreed international statistical guidance.

Upcoming changes

The next vacancies and jobs bulletin (20 April 2021) will include revisions to estimates of vacancies back to the start of the series in 2001. Revisions will result from a review of the seasonal adjustment parameters and from taking on updated sources of additional information. This is an annual process, as outlined in the Vacancy Survey QMI.


The data in this bulletin come from surveys of businesses. It is not feasible to survey every business in the UK, so these statistics are estimates based on samples, not precise figures.


Estimates of vacancies are obtained from the Vacancy Survey, a survey of employers. Adzuna Online job advert estimates are also published as part of the Coronavirus and the latest indicators for the UK economy release.


Estimates of jobs are compiled from a number of sources, including Short-Term Employment Surveys (STES), the Quarterly Public Sector Employment Survey (QPSES) and the Labour Force Survey (LFS). STES is a group of surveys that collect employment and turnover information from private sector businesses. In December of each year, the jobs estimates are "benchmarked" to the latest estimates from the Business Register and Employment Survey (BRES).

The STES estimates are drawn for a specified date early in the last month of each calendar quarter. The March 2020 data were from 13 March 2020 before the start of coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing measures. 

Self-employment estimates from the LFS are based on interviews from the three months that include the estimated month, and each month either side. So, for example, the self-employment estimates for each December will be based on LFS estimates for the period November to January. Given this, the March 2020 data were based on interviews from the start of February to the end of April 2020, so only around half of these relate to the period prior to the start of social distancing, while interviews in the final week of March and the whole of April relate to the lockdown period.

Employment status on the LFS is self-reported, with people classifying themselves as being either an employee or self-employed. Labour market flows estimates show that the recent decreases in the number of self-employed people have been driven, in part, by a movement of people from self-employed to employee status. For example, between April to June 2020 and July to September 2020, the number of people who changed from reporting themselves as self- employed to an employee was 277,000, the highest level since records began in 2005. Of these, the number who had changed jobs had not increased from normal levels. Consequently, some of the fall in self-employment comes from an increase in the number of people who have changed to classifying themselves as an employee, even though they have not changed jobs.

LFS responses are weighted to official 2018-based population projections on demographic trends that pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. In our Coronavirus and the impact on payroll employment article we analyse the population totals used in the LFS weighting process and state our intention to make adjustments. Rates published from the LFS remain robust; however, levels and changes in levels should be used with caution.

More quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in the Vacancy Survey QMI and Workforce jobs QMI.

Sampling variability

Sampling variability information for jobs is available in Table 1 in this bulletin and in Dataset JOBS07: Workforce jobs sampling variability.

The sampling variability of the three-month average vacancies level is around plus or minus 1.5% of that level expressed as a coefficient of variation, giving a 95% confidence interval for estimates of approximately plus or minus 20,000.

The sampling variability of the three-month average vacancies level, for a typical industrial sector is around plus or minus 6% of that level.

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8. Strengths and limitations

Accuracy of the statistics: estimating and reporting uncertainty

The figures in this bulletin mainly come from surveys of businesses, which gather information from a sample rather than from the whole population. The samples are designed to be as accurate as possible given practical limitations such as time and cost constraints. Results from sample surveys are always estimates, not precise figures. This can have an impact on how changes in the estimates should be interpreted, especially for short-term comparisons.

As the number of people available in the sample gets smaller, the variability of the estimates that we can make from that sample size gets larger. Estimates for small groups (for example, vacancies in the construction industry), which are based on small subsets of the Vacancy Survey sample, are less reliable and tend to be more volatile than for larger aggregated groups (for example, total vacancies in the UK).

In general, short-term changes in the growth rates reported in this bulletin are not usually greater than the level that can be explained by sampling variability. Short-term movements in reported rates should be considered alongside longer-term patterns in the series and corresponding movements in other sources to give a fuller picture.


The vacancy headline estimate is based on a seasonally adjusted, three-month moving average and has National Statistics status. Further information about how single estimates have impacted the three-month estimates is available in the X06 dataset. These experimental estimates are non-seasonally adjusted and should not be considered accurate estimates of vacancies in the reported months because of the high volatility caused by the survey sample design. They can be used to indicate an approximate change in the level of total vacancies.

Approximately 80% of the rotational survey overlaps every three months, therefore a comparison of vacancy estimates for a given month to three months prior can provide a reasonable indication of the change in monthly vacancies.


An annual reconciliation report of job estimatesis published every March comparing the latest workforce jobs (WFJ) estimates with the equivalent estimates of jobs from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). However, in 2021 this article will be delayed because of our intention to make adjustments in LFS weighting where appropriate.

The concept of employment (measured by the LFS as the number of people in work) differs from the concept of jobs, since a person can have more than one job and some jobs may be shared by more than one person. The LFS, which collects information mainly from residents of private households, is the preferred source of statistics on employment. The WFJ series, which is compiled mainly from surveys of businesses, is the preferred source of statistics on jobs by industry, since it provides a more reliable industry breakdown than the LFS.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the LFS and WFJ series may have additional difference because a person's perception of their attachment to a job may differ from the business's perception of that job. It is also important to note that LFS is based on interviews throughout the coverage period, whereas WFJ series to relate to a specific date. This difference can be significant in a labour market that is experiencing rapid changes.

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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Roger Smith
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 455277