Over the past five years businesses across the UK have suffered from more than 500,000 unfilled vacancies year on year, primarily due to specific skill shortages (particularly in areas such as IT, health and construction), as well as shortages in unskilled labour.
In response to the area of skill shortages, there has a been a great drive from public and professional agencies, from educational establishments and from private business and industry to plug the skills gap through the development of vocationally-led programmes, new initiatives and incentives to re-train those looking for work, and by increasing continuing professional development and learning in the workplace.
In dealing with the shortages of unskilled labour one particular approach has seen the quiet rise in the use of European labour. I say "quiet" as until recently many businesses were not comfortable with the idea of promoting their use of workers from abroad in fear of public or political backlash within their immediate communities.
Unfortunately the strong perceptions of the use of European workers, often perpetuated by the limiting nature of such coverage in the tabloid media, is of illegal immigrants. At best the perception is of a group of people starving local communities of much needed jobs. This is most disappointing especially we have recently opened the doors to the EU for millions of new people, their cultures and their potential.
And besides, the exact opposite is true.
If we consider the role a successful business has in ensuring the economic churn of the immediate community where it is located, we accept the need for that business or industry to be operating at the most efficient production levels, for it to grow and for it to be purchasing increasing supplies from local businesses, for its workers to spend more in the local housing market, in local shops and leisure facilities, it goes on and on.
To do so, the business needs a reliable and appropriately-skilled pool of workers, and it is no longer realistic to expect that such a demand for labour can come from its immediate community. In the case of unskilled labour, despite the efforts of many organisations and individuals, there are jobs available in parts of Wales that simply no-one wants - but the work needs to be done in order to keep that particular business, or local economic generator if you like, in production.
Though the process of engaging European labour needs to be managed sensitively and professionally if it is to continue to build support from the people of Wales and the UK.
We recently hosted a CBI event in North Wales; a debating forum with a number of Welsh MPs. We raised the question of use of EU labour and the response was more than encouraging for the business leaders present. The politicians were quite clear, I presume on behalf of their constituencies, in agreeing that EU labour is not a threat but a distinct opportunity. But, they stressed, only if managed sensitively and appropriately. The CBI agrees.
At Acorn we have recognised this for some time and in response to the levels of demand from new and existing clients, we have been leading the way in managing the use of EU labour across Wales. Firstly, EU labour is not positioned as the first solution to staffing issues; we always ensure that the local labour pool has been fully explored beforehand.
Secondly, it is not necessarily the least expensive solution either; we have the softer side of workers' lives to take care of such as their airport welcome, arrangements to be put in place with local medical centres, religious and cultural groups, the provision of suitable accommodation, transportation, and so on.
We pride ourselves in undertaking this in a proper manner for very obvious reasons, but also we cannot afford our clients to develop a reputation for "exploiting" EU labour, we all recall the episode on BBC Wales' Week In Week Out where workers faced extremely poor working and living conditions.
Many businesses and organisations are realising some positive yet sobering aspects to the use of EU labour; their comparative work ethic, their punctuality, their transferability, and their general thirst for hard work.
So in our direct experience the businesses in Wales appear to be ahead of the game, as they understand the benefits of using European labour, and have taken great strides in realising the positive effect it can have on their operation. Every day they are helping to build the perception of Wales as a good place to live and work, and a good place in which to do business.
For Wales, our businesses and our people, that is not a bad message to send home on a postcard.
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