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Freedom of movement crucial in ongoing quest for skilled workers

Charlie Mullins discusses one of the most divisive Brexit topics, immigration and freedom of movement – arguing that UK SMEs need access to skilled workers.
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Top of the charts in the latest round of Brexit discussions last week was migration and freedom of movement. This issue, so it appears, was the cornerstone of why so many people chose to vote leave and it will without a doubt hit some industries very hard.

The availability of skilled, or indeed unskilled labour, depending on the job roles companies are trying to fill, is an extremely contentious subject within the Brexit negotiations – but it will be made worse by ignoring what is happening right now and right under our noses.

We are, undoubtedly, entering the third decade of a modern skills shortage that began with Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” mantra. It put university-at-all-costs ahead of creating a workforce, which this country needs to drive business and the economy forward.

Work had been done to raise the awareness and availability of vocational training, and in particular apprenticeships, but the recent recession got in the way of achieving the kind of momentum we really needed.

The recession caused the number of businesses taking on trainees to drop, especially among SMEs, which meant the cohort of newly-skilled candidates available to employers, shrivelled drastically.

It is understandable why these firms would have made these decisions. They had to remain lean to survive, which not only meant trimming existing workforces, but also cutting or scrapping future skills planning.

But, in the words of US founding father Benjamin Franklin, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

And that’s the situation we are in. According to recent research by the Open University, the skills gap is now costing UK businesses more than £2bn a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing.

Why? Because the skilled people needed are simply not available. The Open University research also revealed that a staggering 90 per cent of employers have struggled to recruit workers with the right skills in the last year.

I’m afraid I have to include Pimlico Plumbers in that number. Despite the sterling job being done by my recruitment department, the pool of skilled tradespeople with more than ten years’ experience – therefore those who trained and qualified in 2007 and before – has almost dried up.

We’ve had to be savvy and widen our net to attract the best available and we have tradespeople relocating from across the country to serve our growing customer base in London.

But I have never taken my eye off the ball when it comes to the future and I have done the best I can to invest in young people.  Apprenticeships are at the heart of Pimlico Plumbers and the future of our business. I have been banging on for years that others should do the same, but, unfortunately, in some cases it has fallen on deaf ears.

The Apprenticeship Levy will make a bit of a difference, but a fully-funded, national apprenticeship scheme that turns Job Seeker’s Allowance into a job achiever’s fund, which would be paid to employers to supplement training costs, would inevitably enable more trainees to be taken on.

On too many occasions, the needs of employers, when it comes to developing the future workforce, have played second fiddle to other issues, which will happen again during the run up to Brexit.

However, it will be in the post-Brexit world that we will again suffer when the country realises we don’t have the skilled people we need. Not because of migration or freedom of movement, but because providing the right training to our young people has, once again, been put on the back burner.

We have to break this cycle. As another famous leader, Winston Churchill, was fond of repeating, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

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About Author

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins, also an OBE, is the archetypal entrepreneur – having started his business from scratch and then building it into a multi-million pound enterprise. From humble beginnings growing up on an estate in South London, he left school with no qualifications, but after a four-year plumbing apprenticeship he started his own firm, Pimlico Plumbers, which now generates a turnover in excess of £30m and boasts many well-known names among its many clients including Simon Cowell, Helen Mirren and Richard Branson. He has been a regular contributor on Real Business since 2011 and is particularly about apprenticships.

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