Some nine months. That’s how long it took me in 2009 to jump through the Home Office hoops necessary to hire a chemical engineer from Nigeria. An ambitious recent graduate from Aston University in Birmingham, the engineer was exactly the kind of person you’d want to employ. A fierce work ethic coupled with a highly-specialised set of skills made her the ideal employee for a company in the business of high-tech manufacturing. But because she was born beyond the arbitrary borders of the EU, it felt like Whitehall went out of its way to make it as difficult as possible for me to put her on the payroll.
Debbie, a specialist engineer with skills Britain is crying out for, was made to feel like a second-class citizen in a country that she had called home for more than three years as a student. The Government was perfectly happy to educate her in one of our world class universities, but less keen on letting her help fill the gaping skills gap that has crippled UK plc for decades. Whitehall was content to provide her with a first-rate education at a UK university and then let her go and help our competitor firms in the US and China steal a march on their British counterparts.
The perverse immigration arrangements of the EU mean that hiring a low-wage worker from Romania is infinitely easier than recruiting a highly-experienced engineer with a doctorate from India. As Britain embarks on a future free from the alphabet soup of Brussels red tape, UK manufacturing has a tantalising opportunity to hire the world’s best talent. And in doing so we can begin to tackle the profound productivity challenges that have held us back for decades.
In manufacturing it is no secret that highly-skilled people are difficult to come by. A study by domestic appliance outfit Miele revealed that four-in-five British manufacturers agree that skilled workers are the most important factor for achieving quality across the supply chain: ranking higher than technology, testing procedures, and investment. Almost half of manufacturing leaders said they find it difficult to develop these skills amongst their workforce, with many fearing the problem will get worse over the next five years.
Our perverse Eurocentric immigration laws have meant filling the skills gap has been nigh-on impossible in manufacturing. As a result, overall productivity has suffered. According to Make UK, since 2008 productivity growth in manufacturing has flatlined at less than one percent a year.[i] In a 2018 speech Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Silvana Tenreyro noted that manufacturing was one of two sectors that could account for most of the decline in UK aggregate productivity growth.
There is no silver bullet that can solve Britain’s productivity puzzle. But making it as easy as possible for British manufacturers to attract world-class engineering talent from beyond the EU is a vital first step. We simply cannot do this while forced to operate in an environment where low-skilled workers from Lisbon are given priority over high-skilled workers from Lagos.
If our politicians really cared about British manufacturing they would get on with the business of leaving the EU and set about creating an ultra-welcoming environment for the brightest and the best from across the globe. An intelligently-run points-based system geared towards filling our gaping skills gap would better equip UK firms with the human resources required to get ahead in an ultra-competitive global economy.
We can only create the highly-productive economy we all want free from the shackles of European protectionism. Now more than ever before the future of British manufacturing depends on a swift and orderly exit from the EU.