UK businesses should be “looking to the British workforce” rather than relying on immigrants to fill vacancies post-Brexit, a minister has said.
Director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Tony Danker, speaking at its annual conference called on the government to bring in overseas workers to solve shortages in the UK, saying it must be “practical” on the issue.
However immigration minister Robert Jenrick, speaking on Sky News’ said that companies should be looking closer to home first.
Brexit has prevented many overseas workers being able to work in the UK leaving businesses struggling to recruit, in particular the hospitality sector which has relied heavily on European staff in recent years.
Despite four quarterly falls this year, overall vacancies remain high at more than 1.2 million.
In August to October 2022 they were 429,000 (54%) above pre-pandemic levels of early 2020, and 32,000 (2.7%) higher than a year ago, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Mr Danker said: “People are arguing against immigration but it’s the only thing that’s increased the potential growth of our economy since March.
“Remember that GDP is a simple multiplier of two factors − people and their productivity. And it’s time to be honest: we don’t have the people we need, nor do we have the productivity.”: Adding that “Our labour shortages are vast.”
“First, we have lost hundreds of thousands of people to economic inactivity post COVID. And anyone who thinks they’ll be back any day now – with the NHS under this kind of pressure – is kidding themselves.
“Secondly, we don’t have enough Brits to go round for the vacancies that exist, and there’s a skills mismatch in any case. And third, believing automation can step in to do the job in most cases is unrealistic.”
He called for economic migration in sectors with shortages, with fixed-term visas, and a shortage occupation list overseen not only by the minister for immigration but also by the secretary of state for education and businesses.
Mr Jenrick said the government would “listen to the business community” and was “aware of certain skills shortages”, adding: “We want a pragmatic, sensible relationship with business.
“But overall, our ambition is to reduce net migration. We think that’s what the British public want. That was one of the driving forces in the vote to leave the European Union back in 2016, and it’s simply not true to say that we’ve adopted a sort of closed door approach since then.”
Mr Jenrick pointed to schemes like visas for health and social care workers, and said more than 300,000 work visas were issued last year “to people who had a certain living standard so they could look after themselves and not rely too heavily on the state” and would cover so-called shortage occupations.
“I think that’s the right approach, rather than drawing on lower skilled workers,” he added.
“And if I was a business manager, I would be looking to the British workforce in the first instance, seeing how I could get local people into my business, train them up, skill them to do the job.”