With the referendum on Britain’s continuing EU membership less than three months away, employers in all sectors are busily debating the positive or negative impact that a ‘Brexit’ (BRitish – EXIT) from the European Union would have on their business. While we are not in a position to advocate one position or the other, it is interesting to read some preliminary opinions from people working within the recruitment industry.

In some our recent articles we have discussed the so-called skills shortage in the UK economy, whereby employers in the creative and digital sectors are struggling to fill technical specialist roles. According to a recent survey of 600 recruitment consultants carried out by online job board CV-Library, over 40% of interviewees believed a Brexit would intensify the skill shortage by restricting freedom of movement among European candidates.

The cause for concern

What are the reasons behind these fears? The main concern involves access to skilled workers within the European Union. While many European migrant workers, especially those employed in the manufacturing, construction and agricultural sectors, fall into the semi or unskilled category, the UK is also the recipient of large numbers of skilled workers. At present, these desirable technicians, scientists, engineers and developers have unfettered access to jobs in the UK, something that has massively benefited British start-ups and creative businesses. If Britain were to leave the EU, will the doors still be open to this talent? The theory is that further barriers to entry would mean these skilled professionals would be lost to competing businesses in the US, Canada or elsewhere in Europe.

An argument turned on its head

Of course, the very same argument could be turned on its head by advocates of withdrawal from the EU, although this case is yet to be made convincingly by major business leaders. This line of debate argues that the current rules place artificial barriers in the way of Indian, Chinese and American talent looking for work in the UK, the winner in these cases being tech and digital powerhouses such as New York, Tokyo and Silicon Valley. Recruiters who take this position argue that Brexit would actually bolster the UK economy by giving access to more skills and a wider pool of technical employees from overseas.

What about EU citizens working in the UK?

Many recruiters agree that there is more at stake than simply a skills shortage. The uncertainty surrounding Britain’s membership of the EU places a wider question mark over the mobility of labour within Europe. It also leaves much of our employment legislation, especially that which had its origin in the European Parliament, open for discussion and renegotiation. There is also the thorny question of the fate of European nationals currently working in the UK. Will their tenure here be put under a time limit should we withdraw from the EU? Will they be forced to give up their roles and go home?

Is there cause for concern?

Already some employers have expressed worry over these uncertainties and have been unsure whether or not to headhunt employees from the EU, pending the result of the referendum. Our advice echoes the famous and well used World War II poster found on tea mugs and student bedrooms across the country: Keep Calm and Carry On. At the moment, we can’t see any reason British businesses should worry. However, the onus is on the government to show clear leadership and to make statements unambiguously addressing the impact that Brexit could have on the British economy, both now and in the run-up to the referendum.

Tricia Hay

Tricia Hay is Owner, Director of First Base Employment Limited