Perhaps the most contentious issue that surrounded the Brexit debate was the one of immigration. We depend on a significant number of skilled workers from the EU and curbing access for these could well have a significant impact on business in the UK.

Like most things in respect of Brexit, the road ahead isn’t particularly clear and we’re not entirely sure where the country is heading. How will this impact on our ability to trade with the EU? How will these changes affect UK businesses who want to hire from the EU and our own population who want to find employment across the Channel?

EU Workers and the Brexit Conundrum

There are some 400,000 EU workers employed in skilled jobs in the UK. Most of these come from the EU14 countries. The major portion of unskilled workers who are currently in the UK come from the EU10 countries such as Estonia and Hungary.

Skilled workers are found in all professions from the financial and services sector through to our health services and they contribute a great deal to our economy and are important to our potential success as a country. The uncertainty over Brexit has meant that many skilled EU employees in businesses and organisations across the UK are no longer sure they will have a job once negotiations are over in a couple of years’ time. This has been compounded since the vote by the inability of the Government to confirm that their status in this country is entirely safe.

The good news is that Chancellor Phillip Hammond broached the subject of skilled EU workers when he said in October:

“We understand their needs for market access. We also understand their needs to be able to engage the right skilled people. I have said on the record, and I’m happy to say again today, that I do not believe the concerns the British people have expressed about migration from the European Union relate to people with high skills and high pay.”

The situation hasn’t been helped by the delay in triggering Article 50 which has left businesses and employees in a state of limbo. A recent quote from an immigration minister that the Government were planning to introduce a £1,000 levy on all skilled EU workers caused unnecessary consternation in the media and politicians roundly criticised it as counterproductive and idiotic. But this does show the level of uncertainty that businesses and organisations face now and this sense of unease is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Retaining Top Talent During Brexit

Businesses face numerous challenges because of Brexit, particularly when employing skilled workers. Are EU employees likely to start looking around for jobs on home ground and leave the UK? Is it worthwhile employing skilled staff from countries such as France and Germany when we are not sure of their immigration future? Will top talent look elsewhere rather than applying to UK companies? And do UK businesses have the resources and the home grown skilled staff to fill vacant positions?

There have already been calls from the business sector for the Government to begin boosting schools and higher education to fulfil any potential skills shortfall that may come from stricter immigration policies. There’s no doubt that businesses will also need to work a lot harder to retain and attract top talent and workers with specialist skills that are vital to their operations. Not only that, there is going to be a significant amount of work that needs to be done in making sure current employees have the right documentation or visas to stay in the UK, if this is the route we are going to take.

The true impact is yet to be seen, of course. If we opt for a hard Brexit, there will need to be measures in place that protect the EU skilled workforce and enables business to source the best and the brightest from Europe. Failure to do this could cause a dearth of talent that will adversely affect the way UK businesses are able to thrive, compete and grow. Replacing EU skilled workers with home grown talent will take time and involve investing in our education system.

For most businesses, the ideal solution is simple and necessary. There needs to be a sensible immigration policy that not only makes the sourcing of a skilled workforce easy but also doesn’t put off top talent or encourage them to search elsewhere. The good news is that we are already doing this with other global partners. We have doctors and nurses, finance experts and engineers and digital experts from all over the world.

Finally, any negotiation also needs to take into account the 3.3 million UK nationals currently working and living in the EU. Creating a reciprocal arrangement that protects both sides is important and to the benefit of the UK and the EU. Whether that will come to pass, of course, remains to be seen. For the moment, businesses and organisations need to prepare as best they can.

Written by Anna Lemos