Skills shortages – Don’t blame Brexit

16th April 2018

Industry matters

A call for members’ comments from the Geological Society in relation to a Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) survey on the economic and social impact of Brexit, has livened up the industry skills shortage debate.

The government is looking for evidence that can point to how the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a future industrial strategy. And it wants to know about employment patterns in the geosciences sector and whether Brexit will have an impact?

As far as our sector is concerned, there is another factor to consider. There has been a decrease in the number of geology departments in UK universities and the falling emphasis on geology at GCSE and A-level. There are fewer geologists being trained which is having an impact on all geology-related employment sectors. And the fierce competition to recruit good graduate geologists means that ironically there has never been a better time to train as one.

The Government’s current Brexit guidance says that EU nationals who have been in the UK for five years by 31 December 2020 will be allowed to continue to live and work here. People who arrive by this date and have been here lawfully for less than five years when we leave the EU can apply to remain at the five-year point.

You don’t have to be budding detective to know that there are very few sectors of British industry that don’t rely on migrant workers. Most come from the European Economic Area (EEA), but in certain sectors, such as health, the professional skills gaps are filled with talent recruited from across the globe.

The sectors most reliant on migrant workers, have traditionally been the low skilled, low paid ones, such as: hospitality, agriculture and logistics. But the UK’s skills gap now goes far beyond pickers and packers, waiters and farm labourers.

In this country, there is a distinct lack of home grown people – mainly the young – willing enter the trades or work long or anti-social hours. The latest figures suggest we are short of 50,000 HGV drivers. Engineering businesses cannot attract apprentice machinists, vehicle workshops struggle to recruit technicians. In the construction industry, we are all too aware of the number of building trades that are reliant on skill from eastern Europe.

Sadly, the apparent unwillingness to work long or antisocial hours, to get one’s hands dirty, or to spend several years studying or training for vocational qualifications equally affects the professions. There’s even a shortage of trainee airline pilots, although the cost of training to be a commercial pilot is prohibitive.

What do the unprecedented numbers of British graduates and school leavers with GCSEs and A-levels do after leaving education? And why don’t they want to pursue vocational careers or a trade?

When the UK lost its manufacturing industry in the 1970s and 1980s, an important part of the work ethic went with it. Our education system largely abandoned vocational and technical qualifications, in favour of academic ones and steered the low achievers into, what some consider, pointless further education. The cults of celebrity, reality television, social media and the media in general have changed attitudes. Increasingly young people now aspire to careers and lifestyles that are very different those their parents and grandparents deemed desirable. And the media and careers advisors put little emphasis on the industries that build, deliver and sustain our economy and our lives.

Changing these attitudes will be an uphill struggle. There is no easy fix. If our economy goes into meltdown, post Brexit, there are likely to be mass redundancies. Then there will be lots of British people with no choice than to turn their hands to anything, to earn a crust. But an interim report from the MAC, published in March 2018, indicates that migrant workers are generally more reliable and flexible than their counterparts born in the UK. They are often over qualified and UK employers would rather employ them.

At Ground & Water we are very lucky to have a team of dedicated, talented geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineers. And yes, one or two are very well qualified guests from abroad.

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