UK: Do Non-British Workers Still See The UK As An Attractive Place To Live & Work?

Last Updated: 20 July 2017
Article by Angus Knowles-Cutler and David Noon

It is often said that people are the most valuable asset in any organisation and yet, one year on from the vote to leave the European Union, there has been limited focus on the views of the 3.4 million non-UK nationals employed in Britain today. 

Brexit raises new and important questions about the speed with which Britain can generate the skills it needs. We are also in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, with emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, which is transforming the world of work. Brexit does not alter many of the long-term structural changes facing the UK labour market, but it could mean that their impact is felt sooner.

The UK will need to determine how much migration it wants or needs to fill any skill gaps. And it will need to figure out how rapidly it can upskill and automate its way out of a potential skills shortage. 

On Tuesday 26 June we published a survey of more than 2,200 non-UK citizens — half already working in the UK, half outside — as a first step in understanding the scale of the challenge facing the UK. Their views matter and their decisions are likely to be felt across all skills levels, regions and industries.   

So, after the era-defining referendum, do non-British workers still see the UK as an attractive place to work? How many are thinking of returning home or moving elsewhere? And, given that technology and automation continue to reshape the workplace and the broader economy, how should employers and policymakers react? 

The good news is that the UK remains a very popular place to work for almost nine out of every 10 workers we surveyed — 89 per cent of those non-British nationals said they find the UK either quite attractive or highly attractive as a destination to work and live.

Job opportunities, cultural diversity, lifestyle, were all cited as pluses for the UK. So too was London and the nation's strong global connections. 

Among those currently outside the UK, it was the preferred destination for more than half of respondents, significantly ahead of the US, Australia and Canada. These are all big advantages that we can build upon in the years ahead. 

That is not to say that the prospect of Britain pulling out of the EU has not had an effect on sentiment. A third of non-British workers overall now find it "a little" or "significantly less" attractive than before the referendum. For those based here, that figure rises to almost half. 

But how might a shift in sentiment translate into actions? We asked those based here whether they are considering leaving and if so in what timeframe. Overall, 36 per cent are considering leaving in the next five years, but for highly-skilled EU workers, that figure rises to 47 per cent. It is worth noting that the long term annual departure rate stands at around five per cent so if these intentions played out there would a potential skills gap. 

Whatever shape Britain's new immigration system takes, it will be essential that it recognises the personal choices of its international workforce. Highly skilled people are also highly mobile and will have options on where they live and work. There will be a need for sensitivity towards the wishes of those individuals and to make clear that non-British workers are welcome in the UK. 

Furthermore, the sooner there is clarity the better. As any business leader will know, it is during times of uncertainty — for instance, during a merger or following management changes — that it is the best and brightest that start dusting down their CVs first.

But immigration is only one piece of the workforce puzzle, particularly as technology is increasingly changing how we work and the jobs we will do in the future. As in any advanced industrial economy, the adoption of new technologies will play a role in helping bridge the potential skills gap in the UK. Brexit will make that even more so.

Business leaders should already be looking at how they transition to a more automated world. But the key is in how they upskill their people to augment this change so that the benefits of a high-tech, modern economy can be felt by all.

Our survey also reveals considerable variation across different parts of the UK, suggesting business and policymakers should take a localised approach. For instance, in the Northern Powerhouse region, just over a fifth of EU nationals are considering moving to another country. In London, this figure is more than half.

In short, a smart response is required from policymakers, businesses and educators, one which takes in to account sectorial, regional differences and one which responds dynamically to different skills levels. While challenging, if this is done correctly, this could be a vital opportunity for UK workers and UK productivity and help us remain on the path to future-proofed, inclusive growth.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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