Immigration Impact

Simon Kent asks recruiters for their response to the government’s new immigration system

The intentions behind the government’s measures to curb immigration may have been known, but the reality of the proposed new immigration system has left some serious questions for the UK’s recruitment industry. The new regime announced by the government is particularly concerning for those hard pressed areas of commerce where skills are already in short supply and the migrant workforce are traditionally seen as the answer. While some are questioning whether the Home Office can actually make this system work efficiently and coherently, the biggest impact will undoubtedly be on the provision of low-skilled workers. This challenge will in turn have a knock on effect across the talent pool. If there is less supply, then demand will be greater for the talent which remains accessible. The government have suggested that automation may provide the answer to talent requirements in some instances, but for many such a change is simply not possible.

Research carried out among the partners of Suits Me, a financial services company who offer bank accountants to contractors, has tried to predict the impact of the move on employers. When asked if they thought the changes would have a direct impact on their business 30 per cent said yes, 10 per cent no, leaving 60 per cent unsure. When asked to consider how damaging the moves would be to the industries they supply to, 20 per cent described the impact as significant, with the rest split equally between marginal impact and unsure. One of Suit Me’s partners, Nicole Gilmore, an AM2PM Recruitment agency branch manager voiced her concerns: “We currently provide European workers to various companies in the industrial sector,” she explained. “In terms of automation and technology, it will be extremely difficult to replace the manual process of certain production roles, particularly with some of the contract packing where the manual process can vary with up to 30 different products per day. Furthermore, the fact that some of the largest corporations with the funds to invest in technology and robotics choose not to certainly speaks volumes.”

Shortages persist

“Skills shortages are one of the biggest challenges facing the UK economy and the government’s immigration plans could make matters worse,” warns Tom Hadley, director of policy at the REC. If there is less supply, then demand will be greater for the talent which remains accessible “Industries like construction and social care are already struggling to fill jobs which the government considers ‘unskilled’. These jobs may be lower paid but are nonetheless extremely important.” The REC’s suggestion remains to provide a temporary visa route which would allow businesses to recruit the essential skills they need at all pay levels. “This would mean that workers could move into sectors and geographies where they are needed most without being tied to a particular employer,” explains Hadley. “For instance, drivers can support our hospitality or retail sect depending where there is demand. “A temporary visa route would also reduce the likelihood of illegal working and exploitation,” Hadley asserts. “In the US, more than half of farm workers and 15 per cent of construction workers are unauthorised. Nobody wants the UK to be in this position due to the lack of an official low-skilled immigration route where vulnerable workers will suffer.”

Rebecca Siciliano, managing director at Tiger Recruitment is also in favour of at least an additional route to temporary low-skilled talent, drawing comparisons with other countries: ”Australia and Canada use a similar system to the new points-based system, but the difference is that ‘low-skilled’ workers under the age of 31 can come and work in the UK for up to two years,” she says. “Perhaps a similar ‘youth mobility visa’ could be implemented in the UK for European workers, to help ensure a steady stream of labour.” Siciliano does appear positive at least about the government’s intentions: “Overall, I think it’s great that the UK government is looking to encourage UK businesses to employ local talent,” she says. “However, they are missing the fundamental point that a lot of UK workers aren’t applying for low skilled roles. This is going to impact different industries to varying degrees. The hospitality sector, for example, is already struggling to fill positions, and these new immigration rules will only add to the strain. Siciliano also describes the measures as ‘short-sighted’ in that many European workers who start their working lives in the UK will be in roles classed as low skilled. This would seem to ignore the potential of this workforce and the fact that they use lower positions in order to develop their language and business skills over time. By ending this option, therefore, it would seem the chance to grow a more skilled workforce is reduced.

Change in attraction

Amanda Watson, founder and managing director of Ambitions Personnel believes the new policy will result in changes to the way businesses access their talent: “Companies are likely to need to change their approach when hiring,” she says. “This will either mean paying more in wages or offering more comfortable job conditions. Perks and benefits packages are an easy way to encourage this, but the trend of recruitment very much becoming candidate-driven will only increase if the proposed measures go ahead.” Watson adds that there is an additional risk behind the policy which could mean a decrease in the number of jobs for unskilled people. For example, firms are unlikely to put resources and cash into recruiting if automation is an option. If a factory can increase the work done by machinery or even artificial intelligence, this could well be the spur for many to innovate and look into such solutions. Watson also references the Australian points-based system as a possibly better way to get the mix of talent required by employers. “Jobs are assigned as in demand on a continually-evolving basis according to demand,” she explains. “The proposals put forward to include this, but not to the same extent and with more emphasis on education and qualifications. Someone seeking work in a factory or seasonal food prep work is not likely to have these kinds of qualifications so this excludes a great many.”

Jo Sellick, owner and managing director of Sellick Partnership argues the government’s immigration plan is simply not the open and accessible system that was hoped for, claiming that the proposals will see many ‘eligible workers’ rejected. “The government says these plans will see the UK become a “hub for EU and international talent” which is all well and good, but who is going to do the jobs that these people simply do not want to do?” he asks. “The harsh reality is that here in the UK we rely on migrant workers – who will now fail the points system – to work in sectors such as hospitality, social care, construction and food processing. If these companies want to continue relying on migrant workers they will have to work within the points system, which will push staff costs up, and have major repercussions elsewhere.”

John Mortimer, CEO and co-founder of Katie Bard, part of the internationally positioned Angela Mortimer PLC, believes the moves are at least tackling the challenge of the immigrant workforce and argues that they will place the onus on employers and education organisations to invest in the local workforce to get the skills the country needs rather than relying on foreign workers. He also feels the new regime will lead to a more creative, thought out process of employing overseas talent: “If you see someone good and want them to stay with you it will be less about box ticking and more about whether you have a good reason for employing them,” he says. As long as the system works, he says, the country will still have access to a high-quality international workforce. Ultimately only time will tell whether the country suffers from this talent cut off. While the government have provided an option for agriculture roles, it only allows 10,000 people to enter the country on this basis, compared to the demand voiced by the NFU for 70,000 individuals. Recruiters will certainly need to be more creative in resourcing large numbers of lower-skilled workers from within the country’s borders, and in some areas the fallout from Brexit has already inspired some new thinking. But the question of whether there are enough willing workers already in the country is one which may only be answered when it’s too late

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