Pubs and restaurants are fighting to hire trained chefs, but there is still a dearth of training places for graduates as the reopening of the UK economy drives an uneven recovery in the labour market.

Across the UK, hiring has returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to estimates of online job adverts provided by the search engine Adzuna and published by the Office for National Statistics last month.

But a broader recovery in hiring across all sectors will be crucial for the economy to emerge from the pandemic without serious long-term damage to living standards.

Although the government’s furlough scheme has protected existing employees from mass job losses, the lack of job creation over the past year has driven a drop of more than 800,000 in payrolled employment, while long-term unemployment among young people now stands at a five-year high.

In some areas of the country, the reopening of hospitality and non-essential retail businesses has driven a hiring frenzy, with employers engaging in bidding wars to secure skilled staff and prepare for operating at full capacity.

“People are really trying to hang on to their guys . . . Everyone is fighting for the same pool of people,” said Menesh Modhwadia, director of operations for Mission Mars, which runs the Rudy’s chain of pizzerias and other venues across the north of England.

“We have been able to open with minimal recruitment but we’ve had to hire for May and to get back to full capacity, we’ll definitely have to hire for June . . . Recruitment is incredibly difficult now.”

“Things have absolutely gone crazy,” said Abi Dunn, a hospitality recruiter in Manchester, who is struggling to fill posts that would previously have drawn hundreds of applicants.

Some staff had moved into other industries; others felt loyalty to employers who had kept them on furlough for the past year; while for more senior roles, the biggest issue in a sector with antisocial hours was now work-life balance, with some employers offering four-day weeks to tempt staff who had become used to seeing more of their family during lockdown.

“There are head chef roles earning £35k-£40k, amazing roles, working with high end celebrity chefs, and it’s a challenge to fill those. It’s mad,” Dunn said.

Pawel Adrjan, economist at Indeed, the online job site, has tracked a surge in hiring, linked to reopening, in sectors that support retail and hospitality — with the strongest growth seen in areas in the Midlands and the north where a big share of jobs is in manufacturing, loading, stocking or driving.

Bar chart of % change in number of UK job adverts since February 2020 showing Growth in hiring is very uneven between sectors

But he warned that the recovery has been a two-speed one, with white-collar job openings scarcer than those in manufacturing, construction or logistics; London lagging other regions; and experienced staff far more in demand than young people hunting for their first job after university.

For better paid roles in finance, the legal sector or marketing, “hiring costs are high so many employers are still cautious . . . A lot of employers are still waiting on the sidelines,” he said.

Even in construction, where job postings have been above pre-pandemic levels for some weeks, employment in the sector remains well below its recent peak, notes Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association.

He said this reflected skills shortages in civil engineering, housebuilding and home improvement, where activity has been strongest in parts of the UK with a relatively small labour pool, while office, retail and leisure developments in London and the south-east have been put on hold.

But the most worrying gap in the jobs market is the continuing lack of openings for graduates, as this year’s cohort enters the fray while many who finished courses last year have yet to find work.

Line chart of Unemployment rate in the UK (%) showing Furlough protected employees but slow hiring led to a surge in youth unemployment

The ONS/Adzuna data show graduate job postings were still barely above 60 per cent of their pre-pandemic level in late April. Research by the Institute of Student Employers, published last week, found that around a third of student employers were now stepping up recruitment — but the ISE acknowledged that this would still leave hiring well below the level needed to absorb the huge numbers of young jobseekers.

Stephen Isherwood, the ISE’s chief executive, said this was partly because “people higher up the food chain are less likely to leave at the moment” — stifling recruitment at entry level. But it was also because many smaller employers had found it too difficult to recruit and bring in inexperienced staff remotely — while others were simply swamped by the sheer volume of applications. Employers had also cut or shortened many of the internships that served as routes into employment, with even those companies who ran programmes remotely unable to offer them at the usual length.

“Onboarding graduates to a role remotely is very difficult and time consuming . . . There is a natural tendency to veer towards hiring more experienced individuals who don’t need their hand held,” said Hakan Enver, at the white collar recruiter Morgan McKinley. He has seen strong demand for mid and senior level roles, but admits any employer taking on a graduate “can have the pick of the bunch”. When he advertised for a graduate in his own business, he received 150 applications overnight.

“There are so many candidates chasing so few jobs,” said Daniel Hawes, marketing director at the Brighton-based Graduate Recruitment Bureau, who said recruiters were in danger of overlooking unemployed graduates from 2020, who were now competing with the 2021 cohort, and with more experienced people who had been made redundant. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”