The UK's labour shortage, after a mass exodus of workers due to the Brexit-Covid one-two punch, is crippling businesses. In theory, businesses are able to address labour shortages by recruiting 'high skilled' workers from anywhere in the world. In reality, civil servants claim to know (better than businesses) exactly which 'high skills' are in demand, and shortages are often in 'low skilled' jobs that must be filled domestically, but many Brits simply do not want.
A return to 'open borders' is impossible, at least under the current government. But so is continuing with the status quo, which is crippling the post-Covid recovery. The solution is simple: for the UK to follow other countries in giving businesses both the power to quickly and directly recruit the workers they need from abroad, and the responsibility for providing them with housing, healthcare and schooling for their children. In short, if Britain must turn its back on immigrants, it should embrace expats.
That may sound radical, but so is continuing on our current course. A recent survey has revealed that more than a quarter of British firms polled believed that a lack of staff was putting pressure on their ability to operate at normal levels. A further 38% of businesses said that a lack of local talent was hurting their ability to recruit the employees they need.
Predictably, the government has adopted a knee-jerk approach to filling the hole. In a bid to fill the shortage of truck drivers and farmworkers, the UK government announced that they would recruit 5,000 foreign truck drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to plug the gap.
This act of economic firefighting has hardly struck the right notes with foreign workers; as one Polish driver told Reuters in Warsaw, "No drivers want to move for only three months just to make it easier for the British to organise their holidays." Such short term measures will not be enough to plug the labour gap faced by the UK; migration is not a tap you can simply turn on and off. 'Expat visas' would allow overseas workers to feel valued as a key part of our society and economy - for the medium and long term.
The government has delivered on its promise of 'taking back control' of immigration, and that's precisely the problem. Government must provide a framework for security and background checks, but without wrapping the entire employee-sponsorship visa application process in reams of red tape. You can take back control, while delegating some of that newfound control to British businesses.
There is a middle ground between uncontrolled immigration and economic lockdown, but the government is yet to find it. Other countries have, by embracing expats: immigrants who enter in a long-term transactional relationship with a country, sponsored and supported by their employers - not public funds.
The word 'expat' is politically loaded: It is commonly used to describe the 'white and educated', whilst 'immigrant' is used for anyone else. Yet there is a crucial economic distinction between the two. According to expat researcher Dr Yvonne Mcnulty, a business expatriate "is a legally working individual who resides temporarily in a country of which they are not a citizen, in order to accomplish a career-related goal (no matter the pay or skill level)". This means that maids, nurses, truck drivers and shelf-stackers can all be expats, regardless of common parlance.
The crucial difference is that their employers, not the public, are responsible for them. And there is nothing wrong with that.
We are already flirting with this idea, but in a rigid - and ultimately ineffective - top-down way. The Skilled Worker Visa, for example, requires that the 'expat' meets the list of job descriptions on the Gov.UK website. Alternatively, if the employer wants to rely on the points-based system for filling their labour shortage, they still have to comply with what the government deems a job susceptible to a 'labour shortage'.
But civil servants don't know what skills businesses need, only businesses do. The government needs to trust them to decide that for themselves - and accept responsibility for who enters the country under their sponsorship, in the same way that, for example, a British spouse sponsors and funds a foreign partner (who has no recourse to public funds).
This would allow businesses to quickly fill positions with the best people to fuel British growth - without having to wait three months or longer for the existing process to be completed.
A process that works in bringing together a union of husband and wife is clearly robust enough for connecting an employer and a worker. We don't tell people who they can marry, and we shouldn't tell businesses who they should hire.
Anything is preferable to the current bind in which British businesses find themselves. We can fuel our economies with labour from across the world by giving our businesses the freedom to source the workers they need. In return, businesses will happily support their new expat workers so that the public don't have to. Our societies, and economies, will benefit - just look at Dubai or Singapore.
'Taking back control' only makes sense if you then use that control effectively.
About the author:
James Caan CBE is one of the UK's most successful and dynamic entrepreneurs, having established his private equity reputation in the recruitment industry before setting up Hamilton Bradshaw in 2003 to be the leading advisor for investment into UK recruitment and property businesses, including buyouts, venture capital and turnarounds.