We chased them all away. Like a girlfriend who doesn’t know how good she’s got it, we got complacent, trusting that underpaid skilled workers from mainland Europe wouldn’t pack up and ship off. Now they have, and there are holes in the economic barge that need mending. What can be done, besides raising wages and hoping the spurned workers give us a second chance? Rishi Sunak, stalwart champion of the pandemic, has an idea, and that is to extend his apprenticeship and Kickstart scheme, offering businesses £3,000 to train young, new staff to fill vacancies. Will this bandaging suffice? Or is it a political move to strike poses, curb complaints and forestall the issue?
Migration as treatment for labour shortage
It seems simple enough: solve the exodus of skilled workers by ushering in new candidates to take their place. The issue is that, following Brexit and a pandemic, skilled workers in Europe are now looking at the UK warily. One horticultural company found that it had lost 25% of its staff to Norway, as employees decide there are better deals in Northern Europe. Many of the workers that left have either settled or pre-settled status, and so could come back if they chose — they simply don’t want to. Employers may therefore be looking to hire from outside the EU.
Alan Manning explains, however, the issue with migration as a labor shortage solution. ‘Immigration increases the supply of labor,’ he writes, ‘but as migrants spend their earnings, it also raises the demand for labor. A migration policy for the most afflicted sectors, such as lorry driving, could provide short-term relief, but won’t fully seal the wound.
The Sunak Salve
Britain’s lone defender Rishi Sunak is seeking a longer-term fix. Extending the apprenticeship and Kickstart schemes launched at the start of the pandemic, Sunak seeks to sweeten the deal for companies taking on new recruits. The advantage of apprentices is their loyalty, often staying with the business that trained them, looking to cement their position in the company and advance through the ranks. Sunak is attempting to establish more sustainable relations between employer and employee.
Dissenters might clamor: we need skilled workers now, not in 6 months’ time. Why doesn’t the government introduce a plan to assist the hiring of such workers, sourcing perhaps from outside the EU? Well, the government has already offered visas for 5,000 truck drivers and 5,500 poultry workers, a recruitment scheme that begins this month. This will alleviate the crisis, but do nothing to assuage the wider problem — that perceptions of jobs like truck driving and cheffing are abysmal. Employers will have to bite the financial bullet and offer more enticing salaries or work conditions.
Ultimately, Sunak can only do so much. The flight of skilled workers so early into the pandemic reveals just how precarious the situation was — the bonds tying these workers to the UK were stretched thin, ready to snap at the slightest jolt. The sourest cynics among us might even grumble that the government needn’t do anything — this is a problem the industry caused, and a problem the industry must fix. Those same cynics might claim that bringing in new workers from the EU and beyond will encourage employers to continue in the same vein, treating workers as largely expendable entities.
As much as the UK (and the world) has been forced into situations beyond its control, wading through pandemic woes month by grueling month, the country was no utopia before the virus kicked off. Sectors like hospitality have been dealing with endemic shortages and low wages for decades — the effect of Covid was simply to compound these already deep-seated problems. Alan Jenkins of exhibition contractor Quadrant2Design comments, ‘The transient nature of the events and hospitality workforce was revealed by the pandemic. We were lucky enough to have a sturdy division of skilled workers, trained by us over time. Many other businesses relied on a never-ending supply of fresh candidates. That supply has, unfortunately, run dry.’ It would indeed be preferable for Rishi to wave his wand and magic these issues away, but the affected industries have work to do, and this extended apprenticeship scheme may succeed in pushing them along that road.
Theo Reilly is an independent writer and multilingual translator whose goal is to counteract stale writing in business blogs. Theo has particular interest in business and marketing-related matters surrounding the online world, web design, exhibitions and events.