HR professionals support future skills-led EU immigration system, study finds

19 Feb 2018 By Marianne Calnan

Other opposition revealed to government proposals to bring talent into UK after Brexit

Around four in 10 HR professionals support a UK immigration system based on Britain’s labour and skills shortages, in the likely event of migration restrictions once Britain leaves the European Union, according to a new report.

Experts say the government’s current immigration policy on dealing with skills shortages fails to “tally up with what employers or the economy needs”. 

When Britain leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, organisations may struggle to fill vacancies as EU nationals’ ability to work in the UK will be severely affected, according to the CIPD and Adecco Group’s latest quarterly Labour Market Outlook for Winter 2018, published today (19 February).

It indicated that just 13 per cent of HR professionals would prefer a sector-based immigration skills policy, and only 5 per cent would back a regional policy.

Currently, the government immigration system means that under a Tier 2 visa, employers will have to pay a £1,000 skills charge for some EU workers they hire after Brexit – known as the immigration skills levy – as well as an increase in the minimum salary threshold for experienced workers from £25,000 to £30,000.

Theresa May first spoke on 17 January 2017 of a national jobs policy, cutting immigration “so that our immigration system serves the national interest”. She admitted that controlled immigration could fill skills shortages, but added: “When the numbers get too high, public support for the system falters.” 

However, some 18 per cent of the 2,066 HR professionals surveyed online and through fieldwork between 7 December 2017 and 8 January 2018 said their organisation had difficulties attracting UK-born applicants to fill unskilled or semi-skilled vacancies. 

A similar proportion said EU migrants have better work ethics and are more motivated than British-born candidates. 

Further, 38 per cent of respondents said HR professionals did not even consider nationality during recruitment.

As to how employers may respond to future migration restrictions on EU workers, the most common response, cited by 27 per cent, was to continue recruiting EU nationals where possible.

The findings revealed organisations that employ EU migrants were typically doing so as part of wider efforts to invest in skills and talent, and to find the labour they require, rather than to cut costs.

Companies that employ EU nationals were also more likely to invest in employee training than those that did not employ EU nationals – with 84 per cent stating as much compared to 45 per cent.

Separate new research from the Harvard Kennedy School, meanwhile, revealed that the majority of employers favoured retaining EU law including employment laws after Britain exits the EU, and did not want migration laws that were worse than current EU laws. 

Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at the CIPD, told People Management that organisations are “crying out” for a simple, cheap immigration system, such as one based on labour or skills shortages.

“It would relieve the pressure on organisations that rely on EU nationals for essential labour,” he said.

Sampson Low, head of policy at Unison, said that although he agreed with an immigration system based on labour and skill shortages post-Brexit, as suggested in the report, the “devil would be in the detail” as to whether such a system would be successful for employers and talent.

Employers’ confidence has already been negatively affected by the potential loss of talent after Britain leaves the EU. The shortage of suitably qualified candidates for jobs contributed to confidence dropping to its lowest level since the EU referendum, according to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and ComRes’ latest JobsOutlook survey, published in January.

An EY report in December 2017 suggested that City firms could shed 10,500 jobs as soon as Brexit takes effect, and urged organisations to focus on broader talent strategies in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

Employers demand for labour is likely to remain relatively strong in the near-term, with this quarter’s net employment balance – the difference between the proportion of employers that expect to increase staff levels, and those that expect to decrease staff levels – falling to +16 from +18 in autumn 2017, according to the Labour Market Outlook. 

This has led to a tightened labour market and an increase in recruitment difficulties over the last year. The proportion of employers with job vacancies that have found them hard to fill increased from 56 per cent in spring 2017 to 64 per cent in this latest report.

Some experts believe investment in skills can help narrow current and potential future skills gaps post-Brexit, and fill vacancies. Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of CV Library, told People Management that the “skills gap will continue to widen unless the government works closely with companies to upskill existing employees, and successfully prepare the next generation”.

Alex Fleming, president of general staffing at the Adecco Group, UK and Ireland, said: “Investment in staff is critical to business success, especially in this uncertain political climate with unknown and potential restrictions that may impose on the flow of EU talent that our economy depends on.”

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