Brexit’s Unintended Talent Impact

Uncertainty over the UK’s future is making it harder for firms to find people to fill open jobs.

Everyone expected that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in March 2019 would have a major impact on jobs. What wasn’t expected is that the Brexit decision has already significantly altered the UK’s job market.

On Monday, a major UK human resources association reported that 40% of employers it surveyed are finding it harder to find talent than a year ago. Then, on Tuesday, the government’s Office for National Statistics announced there were 86,000 fewer EU nationals working in the UK than a year earlier, the sharpest annual drop since it started keeping similar records in 1997.

Leadership experts say things could get worse. “There is likely to be an increased issue over time in some roles, typically at junior levels, in sectors such as construction, hospitality, healthcare, transport, and IT,” says Mary Macleod, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s Government and Public Enterprise practice in the UK.

Indeed, since the UK and the EU haven’t agreed upon any post-Brexit rules around work permits or visas, employers can’t make new promises to EU nationals who would normally come to the UK to work. The pound’s decline in value versus the euro, coupled with UK wages not rising much, also has dulled the allure of taking a job in the UK, says Ben Frost, a solution architect in Korn Ferry’s Global Products business.

UK employers, particularly in some industries, are in a bind for the short term. They can’t magically create an engineer or nurse, two occupations whose UK ranks often have been filled by EU citizens. Frost says some businesses will either pay significantly higher wages to attract experienced applicants or go without filling an open position. Firm leaders can speak to their EU staff and reassure them that, if they file the right paperwork, they can stay in the UK until the middle of 2021.

Another option for employers involves taking on more people who lack experience but show high potential. Especially in sectors with emerging technologies, there will be a small pool of people who’ve done the job, but a much bigger pool of people who have the the mind-set and learning agility to do the job, says Kirsta Anderson, a London-based Korn Ferry senior client partner. “And the reality is those with the potential to do the job often perform better in the longer term,” she says.

Over the next several years, UK firms that are facing the prospect of fewer EU citizens filling roles have a more strategic challenge, Macleod says. They have to inspire the next generation and new talent into their particular sectors. Plus, they have to develop succession plans, so leaders can see a continued career path within the organization and, therefore, want to stay and develop their leadership potential.