Brexit drives skilled workers from UK

10th of July 2018
Brexit drives skilled workers from UK

Skilled European workers played a crucial role in lifting Britain out of its economic doldrums, contributing billions of pounds each year in much-needed tax revenues. Since the Brexit vote, however, they have been leaving in droves. Hartley Milner looks at the impact of the exodus on one of the UK’s world-leading sectors.

Britain’s booming creative industries have more reason than most to fear the fallout from Brexit. The sector has grown three times faster than in the EU as a whole and has become heavily dependent on the right of free movement for the recruitment of talent.

New research shows that roughly two-thirds of EU nationals working in the marketing and creative industries are considering leaving the UK after Brexit in March 2019. The survey of designers, advertisers, marketers and other creatives was conducted by publishing company Centaur Media and received 2,086 responses. Issues of most concern were the rights of both EU and British citizens to live and work across the EU, free trade with member states and visa-free travel within the region.

Meanwhile, the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) warned the UK could suffer a “disastrous skills shortage” after finding that 75 per cent of 250 creative businesses employ EU nationals. Of these, 66 per cent said there would not be enough British workers available to fill the places if their EU employees were to leave. Nearly 60 per cent also said they are currently facing skills shortages when recruiting new people.

Talent is biggest challenge

“Securing talent is the biggest challenge facing the creative sector today and restricting immigration will make this even more difficult,” said John Kampfner, CIF’s chief executive. “EU workers currently contribute to the enormous success of Britain’s arts and creative industries, including filling skills gaps not being met by our own education system. Cutting immigration will damage the capacity of the sector to grow and thrive.”

For Spanish student Bonita Nevarro, Britain offered hope following the near collapse of her country’s economy. Unemployment among people aged under 25 stood at 50 per cent when the creative arts graduate left university in 2010 – nearly three times the UK figure and the highest in the euro area. At that time, 68 per cent of young Spaniards said they would be willing to emigrate in search
of work.

“Life had become very gloomy back home,” she said. “Lots of young people were coming out of education with no hope of finding employment. Members of my family were made redundant and I lost my part-time summer job as an assistant hotel manager at Cudillero. I had saved up some money, so moving to the UK not having a job to go to didn’t seem quite such a fearful prospect. And I knew my English was good enough to get work as a writer in my chosen career of publishing, hopefully full-time but I was prepared to accept freelance work until I could find something more permanent.”

Nevarro winged off her profile to several creative agencies in the London area, either in response to advertised vacancies or speculatively, and was able to fix up a number of interviews to go to on arrival.

“I said in my application letters that I was willing to consider absolutely anything that would give me a start, and at any level,” she continued. “I had gained some work experience in publishing as a student and included my best material from this, along with testimonials from the people I worked with and my university tutors.

“Rather naively as it turned out I expected to fall into work pretty quickly but this was not the case and I had to take a temporary job as a tourist guide for a few months. I quite enjoyed showing groups of people the sights of London, despite the awful weather, and it gave me a chance to use my French and German as well as my English. But it was not really what I wanted to do.”

Nevarro’s break came when she was offered freelance writing shifts at a London publisher of specialist newspapers and magazines, which later took her on full-time. She increasingly took on extra responsibility, including helping with the management of publications, and went on to become account manager for one of the agency’s most prestigious clients. So now that her career has taken off, why is she preparing to return to Spain?

Back to a stronger economy

She explained: “It has nothing to do with the British weather, though I won’t miss having to carry an umbrella around with me whenever I go out, for sure! There’s no place like home and that’s why I’m going back to Spain. I will be returning to a far stronger economy, which has started to recruit again. I’ve found a job in Madrid that will allow me to resume my career at a similar level to now. I’ve enjoyed my time in London. There’s so much going on here; the nightlife, arts scene, cosmopolitan feel to the city and I have made lots of new friends.

“But I have sensed British people are generally less welcoming towards immigrants on the streets since Brexit. It’s as though some people expected us all to pack up and go the same day as Britain delivered the leave vote and are wondering why we are still here. I was on a tube train with my brother who had come over for a visit when two Spanish tourists sitting opposite heard us talking and introduced themselves.

"As we chatted away, I became aware of three suited young men staring at us. Then as they left the train I heard one of them say ‘Roll on Brexit, it’ll be good to hear an English voice again.’ I glared at them but they just laughed. An Englishman sitting next to me said ‘take no notice, they’re ignorant.’ So it’s not everyone who feels like that.

“I’ve heard of other examples of ill-feeling towards foreigners but this was the only time I have personally encountered anything quite so blatant since I arrived here.”

Nevarro said she knew that some EU nationals were leaving Britain because they found only temporary or menial work on low wages that did not match their skills level or qualifications. She said: “One question I have heard that people are still asked during job interviews is ‘how long are you expecting to stay in the UK?’ They get the feeling that some employers suspect they are only visiting for an extended vacation or applying for work just to entitle them to claim benefits.

“I understand immigration was at the heart of why the British people voted for Brexit. But workers from Europe have helped fill employment gaps across many business sectors, as well as public services such as the NHS. They have become fully integrated, raising families and even starting up businesses of their own over here. Britain has become their home. Now they no longer feel so secure or welcome, especially with the British government’s muddled statements on immigration.”

Nevarro’s employer Alex Keiber, managing director at Morgan-Wolff, said: “All the confusion around Brexit has done us no favours whatsoever. Of our creative staff of 45, more than 20 per cent are from continental Europe and the cultural diversity they provide is crucial for us as a number of our important clients are based on the continent. Many of our longer serving writers have backgrounds in journalism but with the decline of newspapers and magazines in the UK this pool has been drying up over the past few decades.

"On top of this, applications for university art and design courses have fallen and that too is beginning to feed through to the recruitment of creatives. The majority of responses to our advertised vacancies are now from outside the UK.

Staying competitive

“So, as with other agencies in our sector, we have come to rely on staff from the EU and elsewhere who do have the skills we need to stay competitive across our services, whether print, digital, web design or video. Regards the future, we have taken some comfort from the ‘settled status’ concession for EU immigrants already over here and those wanting to come after Brexit. But we all witnessed the fallout from the UK government’s shabby treatment of people from the Commonwealth who have lived and worked here for many years and this will not have inspired confidence among our European employees, or, for that matter, our clients in Europe.

“If migrant workers don’t feel welcome anymore you can’t blame them for leaving and going where they are appreciated, and this will leave us with skill shortages that could have serious implications for the UK’s position as a global leader in the creative industries.”

Across the wider UK employment sector, the exit of EU citizens is at its highest level for a decade, with 130,000 leaving in the year to September, new figures show. Far more (220,000) arrived during the same period, but net EU migration – the difference between arrivals and departures – was 90,000, the lowest for five years.


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