Sustaining skills despite Brexit

Why not read our latest blog post, Industrial Strategy Boosting Technical Skills?

Previous employment lessons will help managers plan BrexitBrexit has been on everybody’s lips since the polls closed. What ‘Brexit’ actually means will not be know for some time. in the coming months and years  many managers will worry about sustaining skills despite Brexit. And despite promises that there will be no running commentary, the Government will continue to work with others to untangle us from the EU and we’ll all know the story as the weeks go by.

During the period when extraction is underway, organisations still have to sell their wares and provide services to their clients. ‘Business as usual’ is the current mantra. Business must continue – but, it’s anything but ‘as usual’! Let’s consider one of the people implications that firms are grappling with.

Nature of the problem

The problem is simple enough – there are a number of workers in the UK who don’t know if they will be able to continue working here after about March 2019. Let’s look first at the numbers and sectors.

Non-UK Nationals Working in the UK

The number of EU nationals working in the UK has significantly increased over the last ten years to around 2.2 million. This compares to a fairly static population of 1.2 million for non-EU nationals. The graph below shows the situation. This means that 3.2 million workers are non-UK nationals out of a working population of just over 31.5 million.

So about 6% of the UK workforce are EU nationals, 4% are non-EU nationals meaning that 90% are UK nationals.

Non-UK nationals working in the UK, not seasonally adjusted, April to June 1997 to April to June 2016

Non-UK nationals working in the UK
Source: Labour Force Survey: Office for National Statistics

EU nationals are able to work in the UK because the UK is an EU member state. Non-EU nationals are able to work here because their employers sponsor their work visa. Work visas are strictly controlled by the Government and are only issued to firms where it has proved difficult to recruit a UK national to a job. Proof is needed of that difficulty.

Arguably therefore, all non-EU nationals working in the UK are in areas of scarce skills where there are no UK nationals or EU nationals to fill the vacancies. And arguably, because EU nationals can fill any vacancy, they a) occupy jobs with plenty of vacancies, b) win jobs with low entry conditions and c) come to the UK because they can earn more money than in their own country.

Visas Now and Post-Brexit

Right now non-EU nationals must have a visa and be sponsored by a UK employer. EU nationals don’t need a visa – they just need to show their passport.

After about March 2019 , all non-UK nationals (non-EU nationals and EU nationals alike) will likely need a visa (if the present ‘hard-Brexit’ trajectory is adopted).

Sustaining Skills Despite Brexit

Recruiting the right staff is proving difficult in many market sectors. It’s widely recognised that the UK has a skills shortage.

The NHS and the care sector are constantly in the news. Many care homes are reliant on a mix of Eastern-European workers (EU nationals) and care workers from India and The Philippines (non-EU nationals). It is common for care workers from outside the EU to be over qualified for the care roles they have – for example Pilipino nurses working as carers in homes for the elderly. They work long hours, provide compassionate care and typically do work that UK nationals choose not to consider

Another sector where it is difficult to find competent UK nationals prepared to consider the roles is in software engineering. Some firms still need to employ staff who are able to work with legacy programmes and systems. UK nationals typically don’t want to work with old technologies. They complete their studies and want to work on new and emerging solutions. The programmers who are happy to work with these legacy technologies tend to be non-EU nationals.

Employing Other Workers

The South of England employs a large number of low skill/low wage EU nationals to pick the harvest of apples, cherries, strawberries and other fruits. And East Anglia has extensive vegetable farms that are still not mechanised. Recent media articles suggest that some farms will go out of business if they are unable to employ EU seasonal workers. These EU nationals typically do work that UK nationals are disinclined to do.

Making Job Offers

In two years time EU nationals will likely need to apply for a visa and/or work permit to continue working in the UK. If they don’t achieve permission to work, then their employers will need to dismiss them on the basis that they are no longer eligible for employment.

This places employers in a difficult position now.

Naturally the employer will want to decide in favour of a UK national. This assumes of course that there is a UK national who a) wants the job and b) is qualified to do it. But discriminating against an EU national between now and March 2019 will be a breach of UK and EU equality legislation and any victim will have the right of redress through the UK’s employment tribunals. And yet, the employer cannot be certain that the EU national will a) want to stay in the UK in the coming months and b) will be able to stay in the UK in two year’s time.

Discriminating in favour of UK nationals might be fine in a referendum vote, but right now it breaks the law.

Moving Forward

So, what to do? Since every organisation strives to achieve positive business outcomes in turnover, profit, and quality, it’s important to recruit those best suited to aiding this objective – whatever the environment.

Let’s put some faith in the politicians. Whatever happens when we do finally break with the EU, there will be transitional arrangements. It’s unlikely that there will be a hard stop date where EU-nationals must stop working here.

The REC (Recruitment & Employment Confederation), the CBI and various sector bodies like the NFU are lobbying government. EU nationals form a significant workforce in many sectors including farming, healthcare, education, hospitality, construction and manufacturing. Many sectors will be decimated if EU nationals are simply told ‘go home’.

We therefore recommend that managers proceed assuming that anyone recruited today will still be employable after UK breaks with the EU in 2019. We simply know of no other viable strategy.


There are many useful actions that managers can take now to protect their firms from the uncertainties of Brexit. What’s actually relevant will depend on the business.

  1. Apply for, and obtain, a licence to employ non-UK/non-EU workers – thereby becoming familiar with the process.
  2. In readiness for employing non-UK nationals, investigate and exploit pipelines for recruiting non-UK/non-EU nationals.
  3. Implement a long-term programme of training local workers – aiming to become an employer of choice for UK nationals.
  4. Review salaries and benefits to ensure that your firm is competitive – in effect aiming to poach UK nationals from other UK firms.

TimelessTime has experience in recruiting worldwide and working with managers in gaining licenses and certificates for migrants to work in the UK. We’re also familiar with all of the issues raised here. Call us for a no-obligation discussion.

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