A key priority for manufacturers since the EU referendum has been ensuring government addresses the acute skills gap in manufacturing now and in the future. But without any indication of a post-Brexit scenario, employers have been left bewildered.
Our Making Migration Work for Manufacturers report recommended that the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), to explore how a post-Brexit migration model could serve business. The government has commissioned the MAC to do just that. Here's what the MAC should focus on:
1. Highlight the invaluable and varied role EU nationals play in manufacturing
EU nationals are vital to manufacturing. Over three-quarters have at least one EU national working in their business. The myth that EU nationals fill solely lower-skilled roles needs to be debunked with EU nationals also filling mid and high skilled roles such as technicians and professional engineers.
2. Unravel the real reasons why employers recruit EU nationals.
There are many reasons why manufacturers recruit EU nationals, from their foreign language skills to being posted workers or part of intra-company transfers, which enables global companies to sell into new markets and service them.
Primarily, however, it is because manufacturers do not get a sufficient number of applications from UK nationals, a reason cited by a staggering 64% of employers. There is also the issue of quality, with a third (33%) of companies saying UK nationals lack skills for roles.
Employers also recruit EU nationals because they were willing to take a lower wage, although only 3% said this was a reason.
3. Propose a migration system that gives employers access to skills and aligns to industrial strategy
Access to people with the right skills is key to government's plan in securing the right deal for the UK and the success of manufacturers. This means a demand-led migration system that meets the needs of industry and aligns to industrial strategy.
Manufacturers will need access to lower-skilled labour at least until a point where the UK market can meet the skills needs of industry and the right incentives are in place to accelerate investment in new technologies, services and processes.
There must also be continued access to skilled labour, with a revise to how the Government defines "skilled". An EU migration model that in any way mirrored the non-EU migration system would be extremely damaging to business.
International employers who need mobile employees who can move around their business can continue to do so, whether through intra-company transfer programmes or posting workers to other member states so they can install and service products.
4. Preventing the skills cliff-edge with a suitable transition period and the right domestic policies
Manufacturers don't expect something for nothing. They will continue in their request to train the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers. With fresh commitments to recruit and train more young people, employers will play their part in closing the skills gap. But this can only be achieved if we create an education system that delivers quality candidates, and a training market that serves the needs of employers.
This will require a suitable transition period. With the average engineering apprenticeship taking four years, this should give some indication of the time it takes to train the next generation of workers. And it's not even that simple as in the majority of cases, we will not be replacing like for like.
Whilst today's announcement was much needed, there is still one more thing we need to talk about - the fate of EU nationals already in the UK before Brexit. This now needs settled quickly, positively and conclusively as employers, and more importantly their EU employees, can't wait around until September 2018 for that.
Tim Thomas is the director of employment & skills policy at EEF, the manufacturers' organisation.