Greg Wright:Skills shortages and digital deserts could ruin life in post-Brexit Britain

FANCY living in a country where industry is paralysed by chronic skills shortages and consumers and businesses are infuriated by a mobile phone network which is worse than Albania's?

By The Newsroom
Friday, 16th December 2016, 2:58 pm
Updated Saturday, 17th December 2016, 9:40 am
An EU flag
An EU flag

That could be life in post-Brexit Britain, if the Government doesn’t get its act together and devise a strategy which ensures more school leavers are transformed into engineers, and mobile phone coverage is not a shameful postcode lottery.

The challenges facing our region were made clear in a report from the respected Manpower Group, which, at first sight, seemed to paint a positive picture of working life in Yorkshire.

Manpower predicts that Yorkshire is set for a New Year hiring boom in sectors such as manufacturing, where employers are struggling to find staff.

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If you’re a skilled Yorkshire-born engineer reading this article, you should certainly have a spring in your step. Tragically, there are simply not enough of you around.

Manpower warns that 2017 is not looking rosy for Yorkshire employers, who are still facing a shortage of skilled applicants. When they do find the ideal candidate, they are often close to retirement. This is a recipe for terminal decline.

So, when faced with this hiring crisis, what have sensible employers done? They have brought in skilled workers from the European Union, of-course, the economic bloc we have just voted to leave.

As Mark Cahill, the Manpower Group’s UK managing director observed: “Employers are still unsure about what exactly Brexit will mean, but they are not letting that uncertainty deter them from hiring.

“In fact, some employers may be looking to bring in talent while they can before any curbs to freedom of movement across the European Union come into effect, as more than half of all the jobs created by UK employers this year went to EU workers.”

The bosses of Yorkshire firms who have decided to hire EU nationals are not unpatriotic. Far from it. They have been betrayed by a domestic labour market which is not producing workers with the skills they need to face the challenges of the 21st century.

And what will happen if that flow of labour from the EU becomes a trickle, or is virtually halted? The UK will need to find a vast array of skilled home grown workers at the drop of a hat, and there is little evidence that we will be able to do this.

Just ask EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, which has been driven to distraction by the failure of successive Governments to devise a strategy that provides a route into skilled, long term, well-paid jobs for people who might otherwise be trapped in low paid, insecure work. Earlier this year, an EEF study found that three quarters of UK manufacturers were struggling to recruit skilled staff. The Government has a duty to ensure that the flow of skilled labour from the EU does not fall off a cliff post-Brexit; there must be a transitional phase.

The Government must also provide tax incentives for bosses at hi-tech manufacturing companies who provide long term training for school leavers.

There is another factor damaging our prospects for growth - the shameful lack of mobile phone coverage that still exists across parts of Britain. An investigation led by Lord Andrew Adonis, who heads the National Infrastructure Commmision, found that the UK’s 4G network ranks only 54th in the world in terms of coverage.

Apparently, Albanian consumers and businesses are getting a better deal. Lord Adonis told the BBC that the coverage on the UK’s trains and motorways was “frankly appalling”.

This dire performance is a particular burden for rural firms, who are also likely to find it harder to recruit the right staff after Brexit. If regulators and the Government can’t tackle the skills crisis and eradicate the “digital deserts”, post-Brexit Britain could be a very glum place.