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Neoliberal training policy comes home to roost

Image: Rob Milsom

The impact of migration on jobs is believed to lie at the heart of last year’s Brexit vote.  Free movement of people, it was argued, was responsible for depriving indigenous workers of the employment they need.  Halting free movement, then, was supposed to result in more and better jobs for those already here.

Against this, many on the Remain side of the debate point to the skills gaps that migrant workers fill.  For example, without a high level of skilled migrant healthcare workers, the UK National Health Service would collapse.  Less obviously, Britain’s ongoing housing crisis would be far worse were it not for the army of skilled migrant construction workers building new homes and infrastructure.

On the face of it, then, new survey data from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation showing growing concern about skills shortages would seem to confirm the pro-Remain position.  REC chief executive Kevin Green explains that:

“Businesses are continuing to hire to meet demand, but issues like access to labour, Brexit negotiations and political uncertainty are creating nervousness. Employers in the construction sector are especially concerned as they rely heavily on EU workers to meet the growing demand for housing and to support the government’s infrastructure plans.”

A more nuanced view of the UK’s looming skills shortages was offered by the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development in Making the UK’s skills system world class – the response to the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper earlier this year.  According to the CIPD:

“Two decades of underinvestment and failed government skills policies mean the UK is “sleepwalking into a low-value, low-skills economy” that is unprepared for a post-Brexit future…

“England and Northern Ireland rank in the bottom four OECD countries for literacy and numeracy among 16 to 24-year-olds, and out of 19 countries the UK ranks bottom of the class on young people’s computer problem-solving skills…

“UK employers also spend less on training than other major EU economies; in 2010, the cost per employee was €266 in the UK compared with €511 across the EU, and the gap is widening.”

In this sense, the problem identified by Leave campaigners (though not the proposed solution) is also correct.  In the same way that short-sighted neoliberal economic policy favoured offshoring manufacturing to curb labour costs, it also effectively offshored training and education.  Rather than developing training and education partnerships between business and the state to produce its skilled workers, both the state and business opted to use both migration and EU free movement to poach the required employees from poorer countries (where, especially outside the EU, their skills are needed more).  Following this approach meant that little was done for those indigenous children who failed in education or for those adults who lacked the skills to compete in the modern economy.

The irony is that education was one of the key factors in the Brexit vote – better educated and skilled people were far more likely to vote to Remain; while those with little if any education and skills were far more likely to vote to Leave.

The problem is that none of those unskilled and poorly educated people are about to walk into the jobs vacated by skilled migrant workers as the UK economy is flushed around its post-Brexit u-bend.  It may take another decade to train and educate enough people just to replace those migrants who have decided to pack up and leave.  For Britain to train and educate its indigenous workforce to the point where it can compete on the world stage could take quarter of a century or more.

Rather than providing decent employment for indigenous workers, the impact of the Brexit vote on the UK economy is likely to produce precisely the low-value, low-skilled future that the CIPD warned us of.  But before blaming poor and ill-educated workers for that outcome, we might first want to look at the decades of public policy and private practice that allowed our unskilled and ill-educated precariat to grow so large to begin with.

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