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Planning for Brexit-related skills shortages

There are practical steps employers can take to mitigate the risk of skills shortages as we enter the uncharted territory that is Brexit

We have all heard about the 'hostile environment' reported by many EU nationals currently living in the UK which, for some migrant workers, has led to a decision to leave the UK and has dissuaded others from moving here in the first place. As a result many businesses are already feeling the effects of Brexit.

But what if your current workforce seems relatively unchanged? Should you be content and continue with business as usual? In short the answer is no.

While EU nationals living in the UK on Brexit day will be able to remain post-Brexit, meaning that there is unlikely to be a sudden reduction in workers, the coming months are a window of opportunity for employers to plan ahead for a future without free movement.

What can you do?

1. Audit your workforce

First and foremost, organisations should audit their existing workforce to understand in what areas and in what roles EU nationals are employed (and therefore where future gaps may arise). Businesses can then target their mitigation strategies accordingly and ensure resources are diverted appropriately.

Auditing will also help to identify what additional right to work checks will be needed in the future, given that the UK will require all EU nationals and their family members to register their status in the UK by 30 June 2021.

2. Communicate

Ongoing reassurance and communication with workers remains vital.

Businesses can keep employees up to date with developments by taking measures such as providing advice sessions, group meetings, and assistance with registering under the new EU settlement scheme. Some employers have already paid for external advisers to come into the workplace to provide this support to employees, recognising that it’s a small cost to the business but invaluable for retaining a settled workforce.

These simple steps will also help to convey a message to your existing EU workforce that their continued employment is valued by the business.

In large organisations we recommend setting up a Brexit committee, which will be the first point of contact for questions from employees and will be responsible for monitoring the government’s announcements and communicating important updates to staff.

3. Options to fill labour shortages

Organisations that are already experiencing shortages, or fear that shortages may be a reality in the future, should start exploring alternative recruitment options now.

For instance, employers can engage with schools and colleges to promote an interest in their industry to the next generation and dispel any industry preconceptions (for example that the construction industry is male-dominated). Offering apprenticeships can also be an effective method of recruitment, particularly in light of the rising costs of further education.

Consider reviewing reward packages to attract the best new talent and offering incentives to retain key employees. Retaining your current workforce will be all the more important in a potentially restricted labour market and will drive down recruitment costs.

To fill skills shortages businesses may consider collaborating with other organisations to attract talent, identifying new labour sources (such as women returning to work after career breaks, ex-offenders or former military personnel), and encouraging agile and flexible working arrangements to attract a wider talent pool.

Market research should also not be underestimated and it’s likely to be useful to review the approach your competitors are taking: what seems to be working for them, what doesn’t?

Some organisations may need to look further afield and consider applying for a licence to sponsor non-EU nationals to fill specific skilled roles.

Planning ahead now and starting to address any potential skills shortages before they arise will help to secure the success of your business in the long term. Sitting back and waiting until there is a shortage before addressing it is likely to put you on the back foot, especially when your competitors already have a plan in place.

Kirsty Cooke is a senior associate and Laura Godfrey is a solicitor at Ashfords