AMONG the many areas of uncertainty brought about by the Brexit vote, doubts over future access to a skilled workforce remain a major concern for many businesses.
The Manchester session heard concerns from politics professor Dimitris Papadimitriou, from the city’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, that the UK could lose bright European talent. If students from EU countries were charged the higher fees currently paid by non-EU overseas students, they might opt for degrees delivered in English by continental institutions at much lower cost, he suggested.
Facing calls for greater clarity on progress in Brexit talks, former Immigration Minister Nick Harper admitted the government needed to improve its communications to get across important information about, for example, its commitment to residence rights for EU citizens who have lived in the UK for five years.
However, he warned that any future preferential treatment for new EU arrivals over rights to live or work here, post-Brexit, could harm negotiations for trade deals with other countries, such as India.
While British businesses might be preoccupied with Brexit, the Confederation of British Industry’s Brussels director Sean McGuire warned that European counterparts might not be so prepared for any turmoil. It might not even be in the top three issues for customers and suppliers in Germany, Spain, Belgium or the Netherlands, which have pressing domestic issues, he said.
And the CBI’s demand for an urgent agreement over the future of trade across the Irish border might not be satisfied any time soon. Harper argued: “You can’t make any progress until you have a trade deal. Everyone is clear there’s not going to be a ‘hard border’ with physical infrastructure but in terms of how you manage trade flows, it depends on what the trade deal is.”
So, amid the confusion, what can businesses do until further clarity emerges? The panel gave their views:
Control the controllables
Nick Canning, former joint managing director of Iceland Foods, said businesses could only do what was in their power to make themselves more competitive. He pointed to the grocery market where giants like Tesco and Asda responded to pressures from rising inflation and discounter rivals by cutting head office staff numbers.
Panel chair Jonathan Branton, DWF’s lead lawyer on competition and the EU, agreed: “Deal with the things you can have an effect on. What’s the point of worrying about things you have no control over?”
Spot an opportunity to change
“Disruption in various forms brings about opportunities,” said Branton. “In manufacturing, whole supply chains are examining themselves and thinking ‘if I’m taking things to continental Europe then should I make things over there’. Others who sell in the UK are thinking ‘should I not start making components I currently ship from Europe in the UK’.”
Employment law specialist Kirsty Rogers, who heads DWF’s Manchester office, suggested that a skills gap could offer an opportunity to invest in automation or tap into a new talent pool, such as older workers.
“There’s huge talent untapped among people with disabilities, for example, and ex-offenders are another talent pool that can be used,” she said.
Canning said it was time for some businesses to rethink the way they do things. As an example, he said it was cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to buy meat reared in south Wales because New Zealand had invested in automation, while EU subsidies reduced the incentive for Welsh farmers to modernise.
Respond to consultations
Harper advised those with large numbers of EU nationals on the payroll to answer calls for information from government-commissioned bodies such as the Migration Advisory Committee, which consulted on EU workers and the labour market this summer.
Another consultation is currently open on international students. Harper said: “Any company that employs lots of EU nationals either directly or through their trade organisation should provide evidence to the advisory committee.”
Companies that employ EU nationals who would not currently qualify for the UK tier 2 (skilled worker) visa currently required by non-EU overseas workers should think carefully, he said. In the future, they might have to address the prospect of EU citizens being required to have these visas in order to work.
Show your labour force you care
“Provide certainty as far as you can,” said Rogers. “It’s very important to people and a lack of certainty is the reason many are choosing not to come to the UK in the first place or are deciding not to stay.
“Communicate in terms of the support they will get and what you are proposing to do. Say ‘we will support you and your family in any visa applications’. People need to feel they can come and ask you things when they have little concerns.”
Iceland twice topped a Times list of the best employers to work for and Canning, who spent 15 years at the frozen food firm, said: “It’s not just about pay. You’ve got to go and talk to these people and find out what it is they want. If you don’t, you’ll start to suffer.”
Work with supply chains
Canning said retailers were currently “taking all the pain” of rising inflation and argued that suppliers who were seeking to take advantage for short-term gain would rue their strategy.
“It’s incumbent on both sides to come together. Those suppliers who don’t try to take advantage and go to retailers and say ‘how can we help you’ will be the ones who gain in the long-term,” he added.