Can non-EU workers fill the UK skills gap?

Amar Ali, founder and senior partner at immigration lawyers Reiss Edwards, writes.

According to recent press coverage, searches for roles based in the UK from outside of the EU have now returned to levels seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is being pitched as a post-Brexit success story by some papers, but, as ever, there are two sides to the story, with demand from EU workers seeing a significant drop. In this article, we will take a look at whether the rising demand from non-EU workers can potentially offset the falling demand from EU nationals wishing to work in the UK.

A Tale Of Two Sides – Demand From EU And Non-EU Workers For UK Jobs

The news of increasing demand for UK vacancies from non-EU workers came from the online recruitment website, Indeed. According to their analysis, searches for UK jobs from outside of the EU have recently returned to levels they last saw before the pandemic kicked off in March 2020. They point out that the majority of interest is for higher paid and higher skilled work and is coming from Commonwealth countries and Hong Kong. Newspapers such as the Telegraph view this as a success for the British immigration system, stating, “The figures suggest Britain’s new points-based immigration system – which prioritises skills and treats EU citizens as equal to those from beyond the bloc – is beginning to resonate internationally”. Quite whether this is true is difficult to ascertain, but the reduction in the skills requirement from RQF level 6 to RQF level 3 and the salary threshold is almost certainly garnering more interest in British job vacancies, simply because of the barriers to entry have been lowered. That said, the net difference in interest from non-EU nationals for UK jobs is minus one percent, hence there has been no uplift when compared to 2018.On the flip side, searches on Indeed from EU nationals declined 36% in May 2021 when compared to May 2019. They also point out that this reduction was not replicated for those from other nations suggesting this is related to Brexit.

COVID-19 Has Complicated The Picture

Had COVID-19 not occurred, a clearer post-Brexit signal would have been visible in the job search data. Given the fact that we are still very much in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (when viewed globally at least), it is highly plausible that interest may increase in the coming months as the UK economy starts to reopen faster than many other countries around the world. Some of the reduction in job searches was almost certainly due to the impact of travel restrictions globally, effectively preventing workers from making the journey to the UK”. As Ruth Lea, economic adviser at Arbuthnot Banking Group, states, “We won’t know what the final impact of Brexit will be until we’re actually out of the pandemic, which has just dominated economic developments”.

Many Sectors Still Struggling To Find Sufficient Workers

While the increase in demand from non-EU workers offers some reassurance, many businesses planning for the imminent reopening of the UK economy are struggling to find enough people. The concern is that this may constrain the UK’s economic recovery in 2021/22. Even Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who avidly backed Brexit, wants the government to implement a new visa to make it easier for EU nationals to come to the UK to work in pubs and restaurants. He is quoted as saying, “The UK has a low birth rate. A reasonably liberal immigration system controlled by those we have elected, as distinct from the EU system, would be a plus for the economy and the country…America, Australia, and Singapore have benefitted for many decades from this approach. Immigration combined with democracy works”. As such, Martin is now effectively asking the government to allow lower-skilled workers to come to the UK from the EU. The issue being that the government has made it abundantly clear throughout the Brexit process that it would seek to stem the flow of lower-skilled workers, so Martin may have a hard sell if he wishes to see a U-turn on this approach.

Will Increases In Non-EU Workers Offset The Number Of EU Workers?

This is the million-dollar question, and it is perhaps too early to tell, given the additional impact of COVID-19. Economist Jack Kennedy, who works for Indeed, believes that there is strong evidence to suggest that non-EU workers are already offsetting EU ones, but only when it comes to skilled work. He says, “lower-paid roles are not receiving the same attention from foreign workers as they did only two years ago. It means domestic workers may be required to fill the gaps…with many sectors, including hospitality, already struggling to recruit all the staff they need, higher salaries may be required to attract UK workers to fill those roles”.
Despite the positive headline, sectors such as hospitality are undoubtedly struggling to recruit, and this is likely to become even more acute when restrictions on social distancing are reduced. It is estimated by industry recruitment website that there is a shortfall of around 188,000 workers in the catering and hospitality sector, which it believes is due to the impact of successive lockdowns. This is echoed by Clive Watson, executive chairman of the City Pub Group, who says, “There are just not the bodies out there to perform roles in the hospitality industry, to the extent that some places are now not opening at lunchtime. They are having to not open as long as they’d like to. And given the industry has had six months of closure, it does seem like another kick in the wotsits because of this situation”.

Summing Up

It will remain to be seen just how impactful Brexit and COVID-19 have been when it comes to interest from overseas workers. The strong demand for well-paid skilled vacancies from non-EU countries is certainly positive, however, this is of little consequence to industries such as hospitality which are wondering where they will find people. It will be interesting to see whether the current government will bow to enormous pressure to allow more long-term lower-skilled migration to help out these struggling sectors.

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