After Brexit, who will do all Britain’s jobs?

Total nightmare.
Total nightmare.
Image: Henry Fuseli/The Nightmare
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British businesses are struggling to fill job vacancies, which are near historic highs. That’s why immigrants have become a so important to the UK economy—taking up millions of jobs in the country’s vital service sector, in particular. If this steady flow of workers was restricted, it would be a nightmare for employers.

When Brexit is scheduled to take effect in March 2019, the British government is planning to stop EU citizens from being able to live and work in the UK without visa requirements. As the EU and Britain’s third round of divorce talks begins, a range of industry groups and business owners highlighted how this could create staffing problems.

Manufacturing firms, which account for 45% of all UK exports, report an increase in EU nationals leaving their companies before Brexit becomes official. Britain’s manufacturing and engineering trade body EEF warned that this is likely to lead to a recruitment crunch because two-thirds of firms say they have to hire EU nationals because there are not enough Britons applying for jobs. In addition, a third say they hire workers from elsewhere in the EU because Britons don’t have sufficient skills.

This is not an isolated example, with employers from farmers to professional service firms sounding off about how restrictions on EU workers will hurt their industries.

Given the UK’s aging population, its workforce is growing only because of immigration, according to Mercer. In the year to March, 143,000 UK-born people left the workforce due to retirement, emigration, or other reasons, offset by the entry of around 147,000 EU-born workers over the same period. But since the Brexit vote in June 2016, net migration to Britain has slowed.

Some sectors in the UK will be hit harder than others by this, according to Mercer’s estimates. EU nationals registering as nurses for the National Health Service dropped by 92% between June and December last year.

The construction industry will also feel the pain—Mercer says the sector will need to recruit 1.5 million workers to replace the workers now approaching retirement. In London, more than half of construction workers come from outside the UK.

Meanwhile, a recent report by Markit and industry body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) said that companies are finding it hard to fill both permanent and temporary vacancies in core service-sector jobs.

“Employers are not just struggling to hire the brightest and the best but also people to fill roles such as chefs, drivers, and warehouse workers,” said Kevin Green, CEO of the REC. “Financial services, a crucial part of the London labour market, are not hiring in their usual quantity as the uncertainty caused by Brexit makes them hesitant.”

Beyond uncertainty about business prospects, the availability of skills, and other factors, pay is an issue that often comes up in debates about how to entice more Britons to take up jobs that immigrants often fill. But even offering above-average wages for some jobs isn’t enough to attract Britons to take up certain vital but difficult jobs (paywall). The hope for employers, then, is that Brexit talks result in less disruptive restrictions on workers from the EU, or robot technology advances quickly enough that machines can step in to do the jobs of immigrants and locals alike.