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How will Brexit impact talent acquisition?

Ann Swain, CEO - Association of Professional Staffing Companies

2020 has certainly been a difficult year for everyone. The global pandemic has understandably thrown many business plans into disarray. However, one thing that will never change is the fact that for an organisation to be resilient, profitable and future-proof, it needs access to highly skilled professionals.

Of course, any seasoned HR expert recognises this, but in a volatile environment, keeping talent at the top of the corporate agenda is tough when budgets are increasingly being tightened. But as more and more employers turn their attentions once again to future planning rather than crisis management, it’s important that we all bring skills back to the fore. It’s for that reason that I want to get conversations going again around Brexit and its potential impact on the UK’s access to skills.

Post-transition skills concerns

For the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), one of the biggest concerns at the moment is the country’s ability to attract and engage international talent in a post-transition world. This is particularly pertinent to skills-short sectors that have historically relied on flexible global resources – IT, technology, construction and engineering are just a few examples that come to mind.

The reason that this is of such concern is that come 1st January 2021, employers in these fields will face a real struggle to hire the flexible resources from across Europe that many have perhaps become reliant on. The details published so far on the points-based immigration system provide a disappointing lack of detail around the movement of and access to highly skilled independent professionals across Europe. When we look at this information in detail, there is little to support and encourage contract workers in particular to make a move to the UK for work after the transition period.

Under the Skilled Worker route an individual has to have a job offer and be sponsored by a licensed sponsor to gain access to this – an option that isn’t viable for independent professionals seeking to work on multiple projects. For any employers looking to go down this route, I hasten to add that it is essential that you register as a visa sponsor now, if you have not already done so, as it is in my view a three-month ‘ticking time-bomb’. Unfortunately, the Skilled Worker scheme requires fees for employers and visa holders which are amongst the highest in the world.  Nevertheless, with no visa routes available for those working through an through umbrella company, agency or personal service company (PSC, employer sponsorship is the only option.

The Tier 1 Global Talent visa is also very limited in scope and, as a result is not suitable for independent professionals. While the document recently shared by the Government references a broader unsponsored route within the points-based system which will allow a smaller number of the most highly skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer, the Home Office has made clear that this will not open from January 1st 2021.

A promising step – but is it enough

Of course, the Prime Minister’s announcement at the end of last month that the Government will invest in ‘radical changes’ to the UK’s skills development was a step in the right direction. His plans for a more flexible training and skills development approach in the UK is something we welcome. We’ve long called for a relaxation around the Apprenticeship Levy rules, for example, to make the scheme more suitable for today’s modern world. In fact, during lockdown the flaws of the current apprenticeship funding became incredibly apparent.

Despite millions of people finding themselves out of work looking for new employment opportunities or on furlough, businesses were unable to use their levy pot to fund training. While we wait to review the full details of the new flexible options for apprenticeship funding, it is our view that these changes need to be made swiftly to support those coming off furlough into potential unemployment.

And for skills short sectors that rely heavily on STEM experts, the Prime Minister’s plans to encourage more of the UK’s adults to retrain in specialist technical fields certainly looks set to bolster skills in the future.

However, while these plans may have been designed to safeguard the UK’s skills in the longer-term, it is not a solution to the immediate challenges that employers are facing once the transition period ends. These training courses can take years to complete and the offer won’t be available until Spring 2021, so the solution doesn’t completely resolve the ultimate issue.

Safeguarding the future of our businesses

In a Covid-hit economy, businesses need to be fully equipped to not just survive the difficult times, but to also come out the other side in a strong position to grow post-pandemic. Achieving this is heavily reliant on the ability to source the skills each company needs to deliver the best results.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times of late, the UK needs an immigration system that recognises that our ability to attract world class brands to set up business here and to negotiate advantageous trade deals after the Brexit transition pivots on access to skills and a flexible workforce.

Without a visa route that is geared to attract highly skilled contractors into the UK few are likely to willingly tackle the UK’s immigration system post-transition. And with lucrative opportunities available to these individuals in other countries, the UK’s businesses will face a real struggle to fill resourcing needs – an extra hurdle that employers simply don’t need in already difficult times.

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