Staff shortages as EU workers leave ‘in droves’

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for staff is at a 21-month high, claimed the Recruitment & Employment Confederation
Demand for staff is at a 21-month high, claimed the Recruitment & Employment Confederation

Related tags European union Industry United kingdom

Demand for staff has risen to its highest level in 21 months, according to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), as EU workers are “leaving in their droves”.

A survey of 400 recruitment agencies, including those that deal with food and drink manufacturing jobs, found that the number of candidates for permanent roles dropped at the quickest pace since August 2015.

Ahead of the general election yesterday (June 8), REC director of policy Tom Hadley said the next government would face challenges.

“Demand for staff is the strongest in almost two years, but the number of people available to take those jobs has plummeted,”​ he said.

‘Leaving the UK in droves’

“Official data shows unemployment has dropped to the lowest level since 1975, and EU citizens are leaving the UK in droves. Employers seeking to fill vacancies are running out of options.”

The food industry’s reliance on migrant workers is most felt in the horticulture sector, with access to a competent and reliable workforce of non-UK nationals top of the list of the National Farmers Union’s lobbying topics.

Director general Terry Jones said that the only way to lobby the government into making changes was if the organisation gained more members.

The shortage of people with cyber-security skills were a concern of many businesses, claimed Hadley, especially in the wake of the WannaCry cyber-attacks last month.

“Whichever party forms the next government must focus on improving the employability of our young people and boosting inclusion for underrepresented groups,” ​Hadley added.

“Alongside this, these figures clearly show that in many sectors we need more, not fewer people so that businesses can grow and public services continue to deliver.”  

‘We need more, not fewer people’

Last month a report from consulting firm RSM found that skilled workers in the manufacturing sector could become more difficult to find, as the average age of staff continued to rise.

RSM head of manufacturing Mike Thornton said: “The sector is in a perfect storm when it comes to skills.

“It has an ageing workforce of experienced workers who are vital to the ongoing success of each business but a difficultly attracting younger talent – highlighting a major gap in the transfer of knowledge. Unless action is taken now, the skills could effectively be lost.”

Meanwhile, more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs – including those in the food and drink industry – have been lost over the past 10 years,​ claimed the GMB union.

Horticultural sector under pressure

NFU Deputy President Minette Batters repeated direct general Terry Jones’ calls for a competent and reliable workforce, so that British farms can be a dependable source of raw ingredients for the UK food and drink manufacturing sector – ​worth £109bn.

“Statistics show that horticulture alone requires 80,000 seasonal workers a year to plant, pick, grade and pack over 9Mt and 300 types of fruit, vegetable and flower crops in Britain every year,” ​said Batters.

Access to both seasonal and permanent workers in the poultry, pig and dairy sectors was critical, she said.

“An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers able to work in the UK after we leave the EU would cause massive disruption to the entire food supply chain – a solution for the whole industry is needed to ensure the sector has access to the skills and labour it needs.  

“We are calling on the next government to ensure that farmers and growers have access to sufficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers post-Brexit and for clarity on the new rules for EU nationals living and working in the UK well before free movement ends in March 2019.” 

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