COVER STORY – Brexit and immigration policy has introduced more challenges for the recruitment industry. Simon Kent explores what recruiters can do at a time of uncertainty.
Hamza Malik, associate at Clarkslegal said the difficulty with the post-Brexit world for employers is that there is no one version of it. “Instead, employers are expected to prepare for all eventualities of Brexit.” As Malik goes on to say at the moment this means understanding how the multiple versions of the immigration system could work depending on a deal, no deal, the varied editions of the EU Settlement Scheme and what happens between 29 March 2019 and the start of the new Immigration scheme forecast for 2021.
His assessment of the legal problems facing the recruitment function can be found on our app version of the magazine – and readers should also refer to this month’s Legal section too.
“Last year the government issued a series of technical notices, one of which was entitled ‘Workplace rights if there’s no Brexit deal’,” comments Robert Bates, employment expert at Jordans Solicitors. “This technical notice stresses that immediately after 29 March 2019, workers in the UK will continue to be entitled to the rights they have under existing UK law. This includes those laws that originate from EU law, such as the working time regulations, family leave entitlements and legislation to prevent discrimination.”
In the short term then, the government says there is no plan to change policy – a situation designed to ensure a smooth transition. “With limited exceptions, the employment rights which staff enjoy – including those staff working in the UK on a temporary basis – will be the same immediately after Brexit as before,” explains Bates. “How this will change in the medium to long term is a point of much speculation in political circles, which is not very comforting for employers and employees living in the real world.”
Malik agrees the current scenario is unsettling for all concerned: “The situation does not fill anyone with confidence,” he says. “The employers on one hand would be deterred from recruiting EU nationals, having no clear indication on Brexit, and it would also discourage EU nationals from applying at all.
“This creates a dilemma for EU recruitment for employers as currently around 25 per cent of UK businesses employ EU staff,” he adds. “Whilst the government may say that they will have a unified immigration system ready for 2021, they do not say what it expects employers to do for the intervening period until that scheme arrives.”
Recruiters (and to be honest recruitment journalists) are growing tired of waiting for the uncertainty to lift in order to act. Indeed, the ever nearing date of EU departure means inaction is becoming impractical. Unsurprisingly some recruiters have started down the road of making their businesses internationally operative, no matter what the next few weeks, months and years hold.
“We’re already seeing a reduction in the number of EU-based candidates and EU nationals applying for jobs, and this is going to have an especially big impact on the tech industry, where there’s already a talent shortage and the market is extremely competitive,” says James McDonagh, director of EMEA, at Nigel Frank International. “The number of EU nationals in the country’s workforce as a whole fell by around 86,000 last year – the biggest dip we’ve seen since records began in 1997.”
McDonagh notes the significant reduction of the talent pool this represents and unfortunately he sees resources shrinking further. But he believes recruiters can do a lot to help sustain the talent pipeline – supporting and suggesting alternate staffing initiatives like returnships, work placements, and upskilling programmes to help address the skills gaps.
“It’s difficult to put any solid plans in place when we’re still not sure what the legislative landscape is going to look like in the future, or how severely the economy will be affected, but already many recruiters – including ourselves – are thinking about workarounds,” he says. “There are ways and means of getting around leaving the single market, for example opening satellite offices abroad, or entering into mutually beneficial partnerships with European peers in the staffing sector.”
Indeed, Nigel Frank International count themselves lucky in that respect since they have the scope and the scale to be able to put down roots in Europe and secure a real foothold. “When it comes to adapting the way we approach recruiting international talent, it certainly won’t hurt to sharpen up your sales skills,” adds McDonagh. “Even in the most healthy job markets, with the ambiguity surrounding the UK’s status within the EU, candidates from outside the country will likely need a little more convincing to relocate for a role.”
Lewis Fawsitt, corporate sales director at Acorn Recruitment explains how his business has sought to offer reassurance, advice and practical help to their employees: “In the first instance, to offset the possibility of losing our current EU employees, we have reached out and encouraged them to prepare settled or pre-settled status applications before Britain leaves the EU,” he says. “We’ve broken down important eligibility information, advised on key dates and highlighted that the process will be digital, quick and user-friendly. Notably, since the fee has been waived, there is no financial barrier for those wishing to stay. Everyone at Acorn and our clients are keen for our EU workers to remain in the UK.”
As Brexit becomes a reality and the legal changes bite, Fawsitt is anticipating an increase in the time and resources required to bring EU nationals to work in the UK for the first time. This in turn will impact on the need for longer-term talent attraction strategies and dedicated resources.
“The biggest impact is likely to be felt in the volume labour market,” Fawsitt says. “The changes being introduced for EU citizens will be similar to the migratory regulations that exist for non-EU citizens and avenues to bring in low skilled labour and fill roles in services not listed on the UK skills shortage list could be removed. This will impact a number of sectors, particularly agriculture, manufacturing, warehouse/distribution and construction, and while there has been discussion of making a short-term or seasonal visa available for certain unskilled categories, recruitment challenges in these areas are likely to continue."
Global language services provider thebigword has taken similar steps among its workforce, putting in place plans for all eventualities, including supporting its own 57 EU national staff in their applications for settled status. Having set funds aside for the purpose, thebigword is sponsoring all its staff members’ applications for settled status and assisting them throughout the process.
The company works with a network of more than 15,000 linguists in the UK many of whom are EU nationals. The company is also campaigning with the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) for priority status to be given to the linguist community living in the UK since they offer services to the UK government and the NHS. The expense related to these preparations will continue and the company has already put aside a contingency fund to address any rising challenges upon EU exit.
“The settlement process is going to cause disruption for businesses and their employees,” says thebigword’s chief executive officer, Nihat Arkan. “It’s crucial for the industry to work together to ensure government HR policies help our EU workforce. That’s why we’re doing all we can to make the transition as easy as possible and providing know-how, financial and legal support to all our EU employees.”
Even now, with Brexit less than a month away, Fawsitt ranks talent availability and business uncertainty as the biggest challenges for recruiters. “If demand for candidates continues at current levels, it is possible that the market will become even more competitive, resulting in higher wages,” he suggests. “Whilst wage growth will be welcomed by many, it may have the adverse effect of pricing smaller scale companies out of business, unable to compete with their EU counterparts.”
That said, Fawsitt notes one positive impact of current skill shortages has been a movement toward more diverse hiring. “Our clients are keen to increase the social value of their organisations and offer opportunities to those candidates furthest away from the job market, such as ex-offenders, the homeless and long-term unemployed,” he says. The company is also urging employers to look at new and alternative UK talent pools, from the latest Gen Z graduates to senior workers who are not yet ready to retire.
Could diversity and a more fully engaged workforce be a silver lining in the current clouds? Or will there inevitably be a shift in the political world enabling certainty to enter the workplace and recruiters – and employers – to finally get their ducks in a row and ensure UK plc is at least ready to combat the waters ahead? Unfortunately, this article has to finish with as much uncertainty as where it started.
“Overall, Brexit can be particularly stressful for EU employees, which can then lead to job insecurity and negatively impact an otherwise content and productive workforce,” says Robert Bates. “Managing a workforce isn’t always easy at the best of times. Brexit has created new challenges and the future in the medium to long term is uncertain.”