East Anglia needs overseas workers to fight the skills shortage

Daliah Sklar, of DRSI, believes the time is right to break down the ‘bureaucracy of borders’.

It’s well-known there is a national skills shortage, and East Anglia is no different. Vacancies are at record levels and the region is struggling to fill them. The demise of free movement due to Brexit and the pandemic has caused a drastic drop in workers coming from the EU, the ‘go-to’ employment talent pool for many industries.

Currently 40% of SME’s in East Anglia are seeking to expand their workforce to help recovery to pre-pandemic levels; however, the severe skills shortage means that many businesses struggle to fill positions. The rising cost of employment, and the cost-of-living crisis leading to demand for higher wages, has exacerbated the problem.

Thirty per cent of business owners lament that finding staff with the right skillset is their hardest problem, particularly for entry-level positions.

Peter Harrup, of accountancy and business advisory firm BDO, who leads their East Anglia business says, “There’s little doubt that businesses in the region are facing immense challenges when it comes to finding the right people to fill vacant roles. When you couple that with the rising cost of employment, and an impending increase in National Insurance contributions, then East Anglia companies could be forgiven for looking at alternative ways to achieve growth.”

Before Brexit, there was a healthy supply of overseas workers, but hiring abroad has cooled. Twenty per cent of local businesses state they’ll have to hire a larger percentage of UK workers than normal, despite difficulty in finding the right skills.

It’s vital that East Anglia businesses don’t give up on hiring from abroad just because of Brexit. Many will argue that the UK should focus on training up domestic talents to fill positions; however education takes time, and there is a dire need to fill positions in the meantime. We shouldn’t view the issue as foreign talent vs homegrown, but rather how both can support each other during this transitional period.

The UK’s exit from Europe should be thought of as an opportunity to explore new labour markets beyond the EU. In fact, last year there were 140,000 new arrivals from non-EU countries, over 20% of total immigration numbers. The only issue is the level of bureaucracy that needs to be overcome before hiring a foreign applicant. Obtaining the necessary licences, certificates and visas is time-consuming, confusing and expensive, with cash-strapped employers having to pay the Home Office, recruitment agencies, consultants and visa experts to verify the legitimacy of the worker and their skill set.

Any company that wants to sponsor an overseas worker must be registered on the Home Office’s Register of Sponsors. This red tape is complicated, time-consuming and frustrating for companies to deal with, leaving them without vitally needed workers during this tenuous phase for the economy.

The end of EU freedom of movement and introducing local British companies to the British Immigration System for the first time – when this was never a necessity in the past – was always going to be a challenge for smaller businesses. We can see how drastic this problem has been for certain industries, in particular health, agriculture and construction. The pandemic and subsequent uneven recovery means that the transition to the new system is exacerbating skills pressures.

The necessity for controlled borders is imperative and UK Immigration’s current point-based system can be utilised correctly to create working visas for most occupations.

Once taught how to navigate these procedures, we believe that quality non-UK applicants will help save small businesses in their time of crisis, connecting potential applicants from across the globe with unfilled positions in the UK in a process that is fair and balanced, and that promotes diversity and skills wherever possible.

The issue here is not immigration but integration, which is currently hampered only by bureaucracy of borders.

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