The challenge ahead: how does Northern Ireland attract the skills and labour it needs post-Brexit? Trevor Lockhart, Chair, CBI Northern Ireland

by Trevor Lockhart, CEO of Fane Valley and CBI Northern Ireland Chairby Trevor Lockhart, CEO of Fane Valley and CBI Northern Ireland Chair

With the holiday period done and dusted it’s time to look ahead at what’s in store for business in 2018. Needless to say you don’t need a crystal ball to know that Brexit will once again dominate the thoughts of companies across the region, particularly as we move towards the all-important trade deal stage of negotiations.

While the Brexit process is clearly complex and multifaced, for those of us living and working in Northern Ireland, discourse can largely be distilled into two as yet unanswered challenges: how to make meaningful progress on the Irish border question and how to ensure Northern Ireland can continue to attract the skilled workers it needs post-Brexit.

In November, we sought to address the second of these challenges through submitting Northern Ireland specific evidence to the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) inquiry into post-Brexit UK immigration policy.

The fact that an organisation like the CBI, which represents 190,000 businesses and nearly seven million workers across the UK, is countenancing the particular needs of Northern Ireland when participating in a UK-wide consultation should give everyone pause for thought about the specific challenge posed to the region.

Put simply, there are not enough of us. Northern Ireland has a population of just 1.8 million and is currently facing a skills shortage so acute that it could significantly hamper our international competitiveness if something isn’t done soon to remedy it.

Any hurdles resulting from Brexit that would make it more difficult to draw on EU labour pools would undoubtedly have the potential to make an already challenging situation even worse.

In a competitive global market, it could even give other countries the edge in attracting top talent or much needed inward investment.  Trevor Lockhart

One of the things that makes Northern Ireland’s situation so acute is the fact that it’s skills shortages are across the board. In July last year, we published the results of the annual CBI education and skills survey – it showed that Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK where companies lacked confidence in filling roles across all three skill levels, ‘high’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘low’.

Some of our best performing sectors, areas like agri-food and hospitality and tourism are hugely reliant on skilled labour from the EU.

Where once we were just concerned about attracting the talent needed to fill roles, we now face a challenge to just retain the talent we already have.

Lack of clarity about EU citizens’ rights, currency depreciation, general economic uncertainty and a relative upturn in growth among Central and East European countries are all taking their toll as many migrant workers based in Northern Ireland consider returning home or moving to pastures new.

The situation within the Fane Valley Group, is a case in point. In the past six months our red meat division, which employs 1,150 people in the UK (60 per cent EU nationals) has experienced a four per cent monthly turnover in staff, a growing number of whom have also left Northern Ireland.

Even our greatest success stories, sectors like fintech, ICT, agri-tech and cyber security aren’t immune from these pressures. Companies in these fields all need a steady supply of high quality talent if they want to thrive, innovate and grow.

We need to recognise that these highly prized sectors are also hugely mobile and that if we want them to be the building blocks of a modern, dynamic and forward-looking Northern Irish economy, we need to do whatever we can to retain them.

trevor lockhartThere is also a unique geographic challenge to consider as we set about becoming the only part of the UK with a land border to the EU. Economic integration with the Republic of Ireland has been a cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s economic development for decades, with the foundations for this development and integration brought about through the peace and stability created by the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

In addition to the obvious trade and customs implications of leaving the EU, we need to consider the potential impact on the social and political fabric of Northern Ireland.
For many people living near the Irish Border this isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a question of family and community – crossing the border is a part of daily life.

In terms of business and commerce, many companies on both sides of the border have employed an all-island model to source labour and build supply chains.

Anything short of the frictionless movement of people across the border that we currently enjoy could put real pressure on those companies.

We also know for example that some Northern Irish companies are already considering relocating to the Republic of Ireland to safeguard their access to the EU’s larger labour pool – this could quickly become a major concern if they do follow through on that process.

In just a few decades we’ve seen the Northern Irish economy emerge from conflict, instability and double-digit unemployment to now boast a bold, thriving and ambitious private sector.

People built this success, among them migrants from EU countries. We can’t afford to turn off the talent tap now if we want to reach further still. 2018 will be the year that gives us clear answers about the direction of travel in Brexit negotiations.

On immigration, the CBI is absolutely clear that any new post-Brexit immigration system must work for the whole of the UK.

Ultimately this may mean that local businesses will require regional flexibility, through instruments such as a dedicated Shortage Occupations List, work-permits or salary threshold variations to protect key sectors and ensure that Northern Ireland’s unique economic and political conditions are accounted for.

About Trevor Lockhart

Trevor Lockhart is a graduate of Queen¹s University Belfast where he was awarded an Honours Degree in Agriculture. He began his working life with Masstock International in Atlanta, USA accumulating important global experience before he returned home to Northern Ireland to work with the Ulster Farmers¹ Union. Trevor joined Fane Valley Co-operative Society in 2004 and was promoted to Group Chief Executive of Fane Valley in 2007. Fane Valley has business operations in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, England and Belgium.

 

 

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