Refugees can help employers beat Brexit


In a post-Brexit world, there are fears that the UK labour market will experience a shortage of both high and low skilled workers. Recently, the focus has been on the future of lower skilled EU citizens who are instrumental in the UK agricultural and seasonal sectors. In certain industries, up to 40% of employers originate from the EU, and there is concern that if these EU citizens return to Europe the domestic labour force will not be able to make up these losses. But there have also been reports of possible shortages of highly-skilled workers. The Guardian has warned that manufacturers and businesses will face huge recruitment challenges if the rights of EU workers in the UK are not protected and recruitment laws are changed. Engineering is already a sector in need of highly-skilled workers and remains high on the UK government’s occupational shortage website, even before Brexit legislation is imposed.

However, there is an alternative for companies facing recruitment challenges. In 2010, Home Office statistics found that 45% of refugees in the UK were highly skilled, with qualifications ranging from A level standard to post-graduate level. Whilst official statistics are hard to find due to the lack of an official integration programme, the UN has found that the majority of Syrian refugees coming to Europe in particular are highly skilled and highly educated.

In the course of conducting research for my Master’s thesis (at the University of Amsterdam) I found that many UK engineering companies were in favour of employing skilled refugee engineers and saw this as a positive option for a depleting, post Brexit work force. The Equality and Rights Manager for a large public engineering company said that organisations were looking for alternative recruitment methods, and the highly skilled unemployed refugee workforce posed a good opportunity. Other research has shown that refugees who are in employment integrate better into the community and the economy benefits from their workforce participation. Furthermore, the Middle East boasts far higher numbers of female engineers and, whilst the refugee gender population is skewed highly towards men, there are still numerous examples of female coding specialists and engineers coming to the UK through asylum applications.

An indirect benefit of employing refugees is the additional positive coverage for organisations who take a proactive and progressive approach. Arcadis, a large engineering consulting agency, has set up a successful refugee employment scheme which has benefitted not only their production but their corporate image.

Codes, standards and the transfer of qualifications remains a significant barrier to employing refugee engineers but organisations like the ICE could offer opportunities to transfer qualifications and experience into UK terms. Additionally, most companies are unaware of refugee employment rules, information that the Home Office needs to make clearer on their website. Whilst asylum seekers are not permitted to work, refugees can search for employment during their ‘leave to remain’ time period. Internships, UK education programmes and work experience have proven to be effective stepping stones to securing long-term employment and breaking down barriers.

The rights of EU citizens to continue to live and work in the UK are of significant importance, on both an economic and cultural level. However, there is expected to be a decline in the EU workforce available to UK sectors. Roughly 50% of refugees are unemployed, well above the national average of 4.3%, as most recently reported by the ONS. The majority of refugees who are employed are overqualified, putting acquired education and skills to waste. Employment programmes for highly skilled refugees would ensure that the UK economy can continue to benefit from an influx of energy and talent from abroad, whatever the final terms of Brexit. 



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