Beckie Hart: Scrap the cap – Yorkshire cannot afford to shun overseas workers

AMIDST the continuing political fog in Westminster the subject of what a post-Brexit immigration system should look like – and what it would mean for Yorkshire – has been high on the CBI’s agenda this week.

Beckie Hart is the regional director of the CBI.

With access to people and skills regularly cited by firms as being on par with avoiding a no-deal Brexit as the single biggest priority for business in Yorkshire, the outcome of the consultation has the potential to massively impact the future health of the county’s economy.

To start with, it’s worth understanding the scale of need.

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Last year’s CBI/Pearson education and skills survey showed that more than three quarters of businesses in Yorkshire expect to increase the number of higher-skilled roles over the coming years.

Yorkshire cities like Leeds need a pragmatic post-Brexit skills policy, says Beckie Hart.

However, 60 per cent of those same firms thought they wouldn’t have enough people with the right skills to fill those vacancies. What we’re seeing is demand rapidly outstripping supply, particularly at the high skilled end of the jobs market, and huge gaps appearing across all skill levels.

While high skilled graduate roles tend to attract the most attention, it’s worth considering just how vital low and median-skilled workers are to powering some of Yorkshire’s most important sectors.

Manufacturing, retail, housebuilding, food and drink, hospitality and tourism – they all need to fill vacancies at high, median and low skilled levels, often relying on labour from the EU.

And it’s not just the private sector. Care homes, hospitals and schools will all be affected. With freedom of movement, at least in its current form, on the way out, how do firms replace this ready supply of talent?

The answer is with great difficulty, particularly if certain recommendations by the Migration Advisory Committee are set to be implemented.

The big stumbling block for Yorkshire firms is the proposal to restrict them from employing overseas workers earning less than £30,000.

With a median average 
annual salary across Yorkshire and the Humber of £21,803, 
more than two thirds of the region’s jobs pay under that £30,000 cap.

Take our all-important manufacturing sector, for example, where 60 per cent of workers earn less than £30,000. In food and drink manufacturing alone, more than a quarter of workers are from EEA countries.

In the transport and storage sector – where more than two thirds of workers earn under £30,000 – 16 per cent of workers in warehousing jobs are EEA nationals.

The proposals, which recommend introducing a one-year limit for workers earning less than £30,000, would simply encourage firms to hire a different person each year. This would increase costs needlessly and discourage migrants from integrating into communities.

While some might raise concerns about the impact of migration on British workers and their families, the Migration Advisory Committee itself has confirmed that there is little or no evidence to show immigration has any impact on jobs or wages for local workers.

Immigration is a political issue and a county the size of Yorkshire with its particular skills needs can’t afford to make overseas workers feel unwelcome.

We rely heavily on their contribution, not just to our economy, but to our communities as well. An immigration system that assesses people by their contribution, and not by an arbitrary earnings cap, would be a great way to reaffirm that commitment.

Businesses are already facing a great deal of uncertainty as the Brexit process drags on and on.

From small businesses to multi-nationals, firms in Yorkshire and across the UK feel that politicians have let them down and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is unthinkable.

It is in this context that these immigration proposals sit, adding an extra, unwelcome layer of uncertainty.

Leaving the EU should be an opportunity to develop an independent immigration policy that works for business by being both open to allow our economy to grow and controlled to restore public confidence.

Let’s scrap the cap and build a better system, starting today.

Beckie Hart is the CBI regional director for Yorkshire and the Humber.