Can the UK labour force meet demand after Brexit?

11 Oct 2017


In the sectors most reliant on EU workers, recruiting to meet demand is a huge challenge. EU workers make up around seven per cent of the UK workforce, but in some sectors the concentration is far greater – a third workers in food manufacturing are from the EU for example, as are 18 per cent in warehousing and logistics.

These people are vital to our economy; they pick and pack fruit and veg, they work in warehouses that sort and supply our retail sector, they cook and serve food in hospitals, schools, cafes and restaurants. But the number of EU nationals applying for roles in the UK is already falling as fewer decide to move here and more decide to leave.

Ready, willing and able?

The question we hear a lot is, “well, why can’t employers find more British workers to fill these jobs?”. The REC’s latest research looks specifically at agriculture, food production, hospitality and warehousing, and shows that many employers in these sectors are already trying, unsuccessfully, to attract enough people from their local community. In many instances there are simply not enough UK nationals willing and able to fill the roles currently occupied by EU workers, whether that’s because the jobs are seen as “low-status”, or because they require too much physical labour for some jobseekers.

In many instances there are simply not enough UK nationals willing and able to fill the roles currently occupied by EU workers.

“Employers should focus on improving automation” is a common response to this problem. But we are in danger of overestimating the potential for machines to fill a labour gap. Automation may be possible for larger companies, but will be too expensive an investment for SMEs, and in many cases jobs require tasks which are simply not automatable. Many employers say that they have already automated as much as currently technology allows.

Safeguarding the jobs market

There is anxiety from all sides: employers are considering scaling down or relocating, workers from the EU feel unable to plan their future here, and British workers recognise that their workplaces would struggle without their EU colleagues. These are significant threats to our jobs market, which has been the foundation stone of the UK’s economic recovery.

Our politicians have to recognise and mitigate these risks when designing the post-Brexit immigration system. That means avoiding a blanket salary threshold for EU migrants, such as the £30,000 requirement which currently exists under the Tier 2 visa system for non-EU nationals. Employers must be able to recruit from the EU for any role that cannot be filled domestically.

Provisions for temporary workers and a seasonal workers scheme should also be introduced to ensure that UK businesses can continue to rely upon the EU workers they need during peaks in demand such as during the run up to Christmas.

EU negotiations

Decisions should be taken now to minimise the uncertainty that is already deterring EU nationals from working in the UK, and to ensure that EU workers feel welcome here. Securing an agreement on EU workers’ rights to remain would be a step in the right direction.

The skill and labour shortages faced by employers are well-documented, but businesses need people to fill vacancies so they can continue to grow. We’re calling on the government to go into the EU negotiations having listened to business leaders, and with a clear understanding of the realities of the UK jobs market.

Ready, willing and able? Can the UK labour force meet demand after Brexit?is the third instalment in the REC’s series of reports to inform the debate on post-Brexit immigration.

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