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How can businesses retain EU workers in the wake of Brexit?

David Smith investigates our latest Big Question – how can businesses retain EU workers and who is responsible for reassuring those already working in the UK?

As Britain’s departure from the European Union gets ever closer, one key issue for business is the availability and retention of EU migrant workers. There has been a fall of more than 130,000 in EU nationals employed in the UK over the past year, adding to the tightness of an already tight labour market. Theresa May has spoken of new migration rules which will stop EU nationals from “jumping the queue” but it is not yet clear what they will be.

For this month’s Big Question, Reed Accountancy & Finance asked their clients about EU workers. The survey started by setting the parameters. In our sample, nearly 22% of organisations said they employed a significant number of EU workers, while a further 55% had a small number in their headcounts. This suggests that the status and availability of EU workers is an issue for nearly four-fifths of organisations.

So how difficult has it been to retain EU workers during a period when fewer have been coming to Britain? For most organisations (73%) there has been no difficulty. A further 16% report difficulty, though no more so than for other workers, reflecting the tight labour market. But slightly more than 11% report retention difficulties specifically related to EU workers.

Many of the EU workers are unsure if they will need qualifications to continue working in the UK
Tony Neagen - Senior recruitment executive

Asked why it was becoming more difficult to retain EU workers, 8% of organisations said it was because they no longer felt welcome in the UK, 6% said it was because the lower pound had reduced earnings in their own currencies and 4% because they have better employment opportunities closer to home. More than 17% said it was because of a combination of these factors.

But what should be done to reassure EU workers, and is that the job of government, or of the businesses and other organisations which employ them? Some respondents had strong views on this.

Organisations should engage with EU workers and reassure them that they will support them as far as possible, help to interpret potential policy implications, address any concerns raised, and commit to helping to mitigate a possible negative impact of Brexit for EU workers
Adam Merchant - Management accountant

He continued, “All this should be done with openness and transparency with the recognition that there is still uncertainty and that much is outside the control of employers.”

Leanne McCullough, an HR manager, said it was up to businesses and the government to increase the attractions for EU workers of continuing to work in the UK. “Companies should invest in learning and development, offer career opportunities and review compensation to possibly offer additional benefits,” she said. Tony Neagen also emphasised the training point, noting that “we have several members of staff from the EU that work an early shift and travel to London afterwards to study degrees and training courses hoping it will secure their future here”.  He also thought “it should be up to the government to inform businesses and employers so that we can reassure our employees accordingly”.

In the survey itself, almost 35% thought it was mainly up to the government to try to reassure EU workers, while 6% said it was mainly up to employers. Many (45%) thought it should be a joint effort between the government and employers to offer assurance.

Some argue that the issue of EU workers is not different from that of employing other nationalities.

“We are a global company so we already have pre-set structures in place and as a company we do everything we can to support and integrate people into their new roles from which ever country they are coming from,” said Arshad Usamni – “This will not change in regards to Brexit we will approach with the same mentality.”

So what does this Big Question tell us? The issue of retaining EU workers is important for many organisations though, in contrast to some headlines, it is not yet a critical one for most. But it could become one, hence the need for employers and the government to work to maintain the UK’s attractions as a place to work in the wake of Brexit. 

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