Migrant staff fill UK’s skill shortages

More migrant workers are entering the UK to fill skill shortages. Debbie Lovewell finds terms and conditions are often to their liking, proving turnover levels are not as high as some would lead you to believe

Case Studies – First Group, G’s Marketing

Article in full

If you believe everything you read, migrant workers get a raw deal. Stories regularly hit the headlines about the low wages and appalling working conditions many are forced to endure simply to survive. Just think of the fate of the Chinese cocklepickers in Morecombe Bay last year. And that’s without the prejudices many have to face from narrow-minded Britons who believe the group to be taking jobs away from native citizens.

But that’s just one side of the story. Some industries are now actively recruiting staff from overseas in order to fill gaping skills gaps. Home Office figures released in May this year showed that more than 40,000 workers from the new European states alone – Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia – began working in the UK between January and March this year.

And the trend looks set to continue. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) quarterly Labour market outlook survey, 27% of employers planned to hire migrant workers this spring. More than half of these organisations cited a short supply of candidates with the required skills and/or experience as their main reason for doing so.

Danny Sriskandarajah, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), explains: “We have an exceptionally tight labour market. The size of the available workforce is relatively small compared with [competing nations]. The ability to bring in migrant workers is an important way to bring in [staff] and maintain the flexibility of the labour workforce.”

The NHS is a prime example of an organisation that depends on the skills of overseas employees in order to keep staffing levels up, particularly with promises of better pay and working conditions in countries such as Australia proving too much to resist for British nurses. Yet, a report by the Nursing and Midwifery Council published last month indicated that the UK has begun to lose favour among Filipino nurses, one of the main sources of NHS staff. Higher pay and less stressful jobs have made the United States appear a much more attractive prospect. So with some sectors of the UK economy dependent on the skills of migrant workers, employers need to ensure that they stand out if they are to attract the talent they require.

There are typically two main groups of workers that migrate to the UK: those that are recruited to permanent positions specifically for their skills and those that look for shorter-term positions or seasonal roles. Although there is likely to be some degree of overlap between the needs of both sets of employees, on the whole, the elements of reward they value most are likely to be quite different.

When it comes to attracting staff to fill a specific role, a high number of employers offer migrant workers the same benefits package as native employees. Accountancy firm Ernst & Young, for example, is just one firm that does so. Steve Rolls, director of recruitment, says: “In the UK, we offer a competitive salary to attract people in. We rely firstly on those people that are interested in moving [and travelling overseas] and, secondly, on differences in salary. For example, countries like Australia [offer] relatively low salaries in comparison, so UK wages can appear very attractive.”

So in many cases, this combined with the job itself can be an appealing prospect. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is currently experiencing an extreme shortage of doctors and medical staff because overseas packages have enticed such high numbers of medical professionals to migrate. John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD, explains that this is not down to employers looking to recruit overseas staff in order to cut wage bills, but instead it ensures wages do not rise too quickly as may be the case if organisations were forced to offer increasing sums to poach native staff from competitors.

Migrant workers that are looking to fill seasonal roles, however, are often more likely to be focused on a shorter-term view of reward. “Many people that come from Eastern Europe want to come and work for short periods of time and save lots of money. The critical thing for employers to highlight is what they can offer in terms of net savings,” says Sriskandarajah.

But however long overseas employees spend in the UK, employers should bear in mind that the British culture will be completely different to the one they are used to. And there are a number of things employers can do to make life just that little bit easier. Ernst & Young, for example, offers staff a relocation package, which includes help with accommodation and covers the cost of moving employees’ belongings.

John McLeish, HR director at First Group (see box above), meanwhile, explains that the firm operates an integration scheme for overseas staff. “We work hard to help people settle in and have appointed integration officers to help integrate the new drivers.”

As part of its integration package, it helps workers to find accommodation – often with other migrant workers so that staff are not isolated once they leave work – organises social activities with UK workers such as football matches and offers training for staff to gain new business-related skills or convert qualifications from their home country.

McLeish adds that the firm is also keen to ensure that staff coming from overseas have an acceptable standard of English before travelling to the UK. The reasons for doing so are two-fold: not only does it make life easier for the employees, but their roles are also customer-facing so it is vital they can communicate easily with passengers. “We don’t want to put up too many barriers for people, but equally we need standards.”

To help potential recruits gain the language skills they need, First Group set up structured English language schools in Poland during the initial pilot phase of its recruitment programme. Back in the UK, it also employs Polish speaking staff in depots where migrant workers are based to help overcome any language difficulties they may have.

Offering overseas staff the opportunity to develop new skills can be a big selling point when recruiting. According to Sriskandarajah, the majority of migrant workers entering the UK are interested in learning English and experiencing British culture: “Just because someone is coming over to pick strawberries, doesn’t mean they are stupid or want to pick strawberries for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t cost much for employers to provide English lessons,” he explains.

An ongoing concern for employers of migrant workers is a higher turnover rate among these staff, particularly those that may have left families behind in their native countries. Philpott, however, believes that this is not likely to occur in the majority of cases: “[Employers] have to take into account the fact that migrants aren’t just migrants, they’re often relatively young. So a high turnover rate may be because they are young, not [because they are] migrant workers. There is no evidence that migrants are likely to have a higher turnover rate than non-migrants. You could help by assisting people in putting down roots, which would decrease their prospects of leaving this country to the one from which they came.” However, he adds that this will not lessen the possibility of turnover occurring in local labour markets.

So getting to grips with issues facing migrant workers will stand employers in good stead. After all, as Sriskandarajah concludes: “If we are going to be an innovative culture, then migration is going to play a role.”

Case Study: First Group

First Group looks to overseas employees to fill a high number of vacancies among bus drivers and engineers.

In the past year, the transport firm has recruited more than 400 employees from Eastern Europe alone and has filled all but approximately 1% of their vacancies. John McLeish, HR director, explains: “We’re operating in a tight labour market. The passenger transport sector for a number of years now has been experiencing a shortage of labour. We had been struggling to recruit enough drivers to provide our service. We were in danger of having to compromise and stop running some of our routes.”

When it comes to rewarding staff, First Group does not differentiate between migrant workers and UK staff. “We offer people who come and work for us from overseas exactly the same terms and conditions as UK staff. We’ve all heard the stories [about poorly-paid migrant workers] but we set out at the beginning that we would be offering people that wanted to come and drive buses the same package as local people.”

He adds that it was important not to be seen to be favouring migrant workers over the firm’s local staff. “We have to be careful that they’re not seen to be getting everything and the UK employees aren’t.”

The approach appears to be working. Staff turnover among First Group’s overseas workforce is much lower than among domestic staff, allaying the myth that many migrant workers simply look for short-term employment. “If you recruit people and you look after them and treat them well, then they won’t leave. I think we’ve created something that’s sustainable now,” says McLeish.

Case Study – G’s Marketing

Agricultural firm G’s Marketing relies on migrant workers to fill seasonal vacancies during the summer months.

The Cambridgeshire-based firm offers a number of practical perks to help its mainly eastern European staff settle in. The company owns six hostels close to each of its sites to provide workers with accommodation when they arrive and helps them to register with local doctors and banks.

Sharon Cross, hostel manager, explains that this helps the company to ensure that it is able to recruit a sufficient number of staff. “There is such low unemployment in this area that we wouldn’t get the number of workers that we need [if we didn’t use a migrant workforce].”

G’s Marketing also organises a programme of social activities for staff at a minimal cost including trips to attractions such as Alton Towers. It is currently in the process of building a £1 million social building for employees containing facilities such as a bar and dance floor.

But Cross adds that many migrant workers are attracted by the pay: “That’s what they’re mainly here for: to earn as much as they can.” Its overall package, however, is a big factor in enticing staff to return. “People do come back to us year after year. If you do get [them] back, that speaks volumes,” she adds.