Broader horizons or inward looking isolation – why, post Brexit, recruitment needs to change in the UK

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 12 Mar 2017

If you work in recruitment you’ll know there are a lot of skills shortages.  Engineering, IT (STEM generally), medicine, teaching; these and many others are difficult to recruit to simply because demand outstrips supply.

Conversely, if you do have skills in one of the areas where there is great demand, you’ll know all about it because recruitment agencies will have their resourcers constantly calling you and/or bombarding you with Linkedin inmails, social media and direct messaging, all designed to tempt you to make a profitable career move.

This problem applies to middle to senior level vacancies, but also to executive level roles, where, in some industries (construction for example), there are simply not enough good people coming through the ranks to fill the gaps as the current director-level cohort takes up its share options and retires.  And if that’s not enough, we have the initial stages of Brexit to deal with in 2017… 

A recent survey of 34,000 British businesses by the IoD (Institute of Directors) suggests that, in spite of the looming fall-out with the EU, 60% of British businesses are "optimistic" about their future.  However, a newspaper report of this study, noted, “Four in ten complained of a skills shortage and a lack of employees with the requisite skills, demonstrating the need for clarity on a long-term skills strategy and an immigration system that gives businesses access to the talented people they need.”

For recruiters, facing a lack of quality candidates in many disciplines, this is the crux of the matter. The need for a clear strategy that matches immigration policy with recruitment needs is obvious, but will we get it?

At present, anyone from within the EU can move freely to work in the UK. Yet despite this we are no nearer solving our recruitment problems in those hard-to-fill areas that are essential for our future economic success. During the Brexit debate the focus was on immigrants who work in low-paid sectors, doing jobs that native Britons allegedly won’t do. Regrettably, far less attention was – and is - paid to the importance of attracting more skilled people from overseas, namely those who qualify to come to the UK under a Tier 2 Visa.

The job types that qualify for Tier 2 Visas are easily found online and a detailed look at the actual list shows that there are many job types which are exempt from the Resident Labour Market Test (a government requirement that means employers must prove to UK Visas and Immigration that no native or resident UK worker is available for the role).  How this will change post-Brexit is a vital question for the recruitment industry.

Irrespective of what is eventually agreed, the key will be matching immigration to the skills needed – and ensuring that hiring from countries where these skills exist is made as easy as possible.  However, this will need a change of attitude for some recruitment firms. It is arguable that at present too many ordinary (i.e. outside the big international firms) recruiters restrict their horizons when it comes to search/sourcing. The UK is a major economy, so it’s easier to stick to tried and trusted British/EU candidates – and that causes us to recycle existing talent rather than look further afield for those with the expertise to reduce our skills shortages. I suspect this is particularly true outside the international melting-pot of labour that is London.

Recruiters may well be forced to broaden their horizons in the future and, assuming that the UK economy continues to be an attractive destination for job-seekers, this might not necessarily be a bad thing. Whatever happens, I think we may well see a major shift in strategy on the part of recruiters and their clients over the next few years. It’s estimated that by 2029 China will overtake the USA to become the leading economy in the world.  India is not too far behind and various African and Latin American countries will also become major economic players in the not too distant future.  We don’t have long to attract some of these countries’ talent and strengthen our economic ties with them.  Enticing their students to study at our world-leading universities (and then letting them work here subsequently, setting up businesses and further strengthening cross-border relationships) is one very important way in which we can do this, but, sadly, the politics around the debate as to whether foreign students should be counted as immigrants clouds the issue. That matter needs resolved as soon as possible.

Another problem is that most recruiters aren’t able to speak other languages. Instead, they simply revisit the same talent pools and their own (frequently stale?) databases.  There surely must be an advantage in being able to explain the intricacies of Tier 2 Visas (or whatever they become post-Brexit) to overseas candidates in their own languages. There may well be a premium to be paid for a candidate who speaks a major world language (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Spanish, etc.) as well as English. The alternative may well be that the IoD survey’s fear that Britain becomes isolationist is realised, in which case we’ll see the recruitment industry continue to tap into a well of talent that frankly is not large enough to sustain all the demands of their clients. And we’d all be the poorer for that…

James Dunne,