In the post-Brexit new order, there’s a chance, isn’t there, that battered cod, 16oC summers and a notoriously unfriendly capital city will not be enough in and of themselves to attract Europeans to work in the UK despite the existence of more arduous immigration hurdles.
Although the Government’s “settled status” plan at least gives some comfort to my EU colleagues that they won’t be immediately turfed out of the country when we lift up the European drawbridge in March 2019, it does absolutely nothing to alleviate the longer term concern for construction sector employers: that Brexit will dramatically shrink the talent pool of European construction professionals in this country. It is simply not enough to provide assurances to the EU nationals currently living and working in the UK. If Britain is indeed “open for business”, the government needs to think carefully about how they will assist businesses such as ours to retain and continue to attract these crucial individuals even in the face of inevitable bureaucratic hurdles and a potential new perception of British xenophobia that Brexit carries in its wake.
Like many other employers in our sector, XCO2 is a broad church: 29% of our employees are non-UK EU citizens compared to 44% UK nationals. The remaining 27% are from the rest of the world. Our 34 employees represent 15 different nations and we are certainly not alone in our diversity: London construction sector employers average 25% EU-born workers. Similarly, London architects employ, on average, 33% European nationals.
XCO2’s employment of a diverse workforce is no accident but something the management has actively pursued. It having ready, unobstructed access to the European talent pool has provided significant benefits to our company including:
- an increased ability to engage with European-based project teams through shared language, background and experience on local standards;
- a more inclusive, interesting and vibrant office culture;
- a more robust level of policy debate resulting from different educational and cultural experiences;
- opportunities to try different foods without leaving the office!
Of course, our diversity come from our excellent RoW staff just as much as it does from Europeans but the European talent pool has been particularly useful for obvious geographic reasons.
Now that the future of our current EU staff seems to be safeguarded, our key concern is how we will continue to maintain our European diversity as the firm grows. Will European nationals continue to be attracted to the UK? What bureaucratic hoops will they, and we, have to jump through to arrange work permits? Will they be afforded the same rights to put down roots as those European colleagues who were fortunate enough to arrive before Article 50 was triggered? Will we be forced into a Trump style “Britain First” recruitment strategy?
Such an approach goes against both our basic principles and our basic business interests. We are an inclusive company with a desire and need to trade within an international market. Although a small firm we have now worked in over 30 countries. With recruitment a time-consuming task that already provides a not-insignificant challenge with a shortage of qualified UK engineering workforce, the last thing we need is increased bureaucratic hurdles taking up time that could be spent on project work or, indeed, skilled Europeans being deterred from applying for UK positions.
In an era where knowledge sharing is so vital in order to address and react to global environmental threats it would be detrimental for the UK construction industry to regress and become insular. Buildings must continue to be designed and developed by international teams. British Standards (BS) ought to continue to influence and be influenced by European and International Standards (EN/ISO). UK universities and research bodies must be able to share building data and continue to participate in international studies. And British building design firms should continue to be a melting pot of backgrounds and ideas so they continue to be among the best in the world.
So the question remains: in the absence of a free movement agreement, which made recruitment relatively straightforward, what will this government do to make sure the British construction industry continues to attract the skilled Europeans who are so vital to it’s prosperity?