Migrant workers needed for both low- and high-skilled roles

Businesses are concerned about – but not prepared for – a tighter labour market according to the Migration Advisory Committee

UK employers need migrant European economic area (EEA) workers for both low- and high-skilled roles, according to a new report by the Migration Advisory Committee.

EEA-workers in the UK labour market found that employers in all sectors are concerned about potential future restrictions to the migration of EEA workers when an immigration system is finalised for a post-Brexit UK.

It outlined that workers from older EU member states are more likely to work in high-skilled jobs than UK-born workers, with employers of high-skilled staff citing concerns over the possibility EEA workers will become subject to non-EEA migration rules. Employers of lower-skilled workers were particularly concerned that the impact of restrictions will be greatest on them, having hired high volumes of EEA migrants since 2004.

REC director of policy and professional services Tom Hadley agreed with the findings, commenting that “there is a strong collective employer voice on the need to maintain access to staff and skills from EU countries for low-skilled roles as well as high-skilled.

“It’s important that the debate isn’t just about engineers and doctors, but acknowledges that we need people to pick our fruit and veg, cook and serve in our hotels, and look after people in our care homes,” he said.

He added: "There are a number of reasons businesses need to employ EEA migrants for high- and low-skilled roles. Skills shortages among UK-born workers was a main finding, particularly in high-skilled jobs. Higher work motivation and flexibility, greater willingness to do jobs that UK-born workers aren’t interested in, and low unemployment rates leading to a low supply of UK-born workers, were also given as reasons.

"The report notes that ‘employers did not often mention wages as a factor’ and highlighted that the ‘vast majority of employers do not deliberately seek to fill vacancies with migrant workers’, rather they hire ‘the best available candidate'."

Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market analyst at the CIPD, agreed that organisations hire migrant workers “because they are the best or sometimes the only candidates for various reasons such as the unattractiveness of the role or the local unemployment rate, especially for low-skilled or unskilled roles.

“As a result, it is imperative that there is some form of low-skilled route for EU migrant workers in the UK in the medium to long term,” he said.

The report found that businesses were already finding it harder to recruit EEA migrants, because of the fall in the value of the pound and the UK being viewed as a less attractive place for migrants following the Brexit referendum result. This is coupled with a rise in alternative employment options in light of rising incomes in eastern Europe and a reviving Eurozone.

For Jessica Pattinson, head of immigration at law firm Dentons, the report “highlights the concern among employers about the negative effect of restricting immigration, and the general sense of uncertainty and the impact this has on the ability to plan for the future”.

However, many businesses are not well-prepared for what could be a changing and tighter labour market in the future, with few making provisions for change, according to the report. Some employers were said to be considering training UK-born workers to tackle skills shortages in the long term, but ‘in the short term they needed EEA migrants to fill the gap,’ the report stated.

It added that the claim by employers that they would not attract more UK workers even if they raised wages, was 'not credible'.

Davies commented that a labour shortage occupation list would help the issue around skills shortages: “Looking ahead, we hope that the MAC and the government see the merit in a labour shortage occupation list," he said. "Under this arrangement employers would have to show that they are making efforts to improve the supply of UK workers while demonstrating that the occupation has a genuine labour or skill shortage.

"This more selective approach to controlling unskilled or low-skilled migration from the EU could potentially act as a catalyst for improving employer practice and enable most organisations to meet their labour and skills needs.”

The Migration Advisory Committee review was commissioned by home secretary Amber Rudd and took views from more than 400 businesses, industry bodies, government departments and other organisations.