If hiring EU workers is set to get harder, then the case for investing in your existing workforce couldn’t be stronger

As HR and L&D professionals, we all know that investing in people – developing their skills and looking after their well-being – is not only the right thing to do as a responsible employer, but is also key to building resilient and productive organisations. But in times of uncertainty, employers often see such investments as controllable or variable short term costs that they can offset against the perceived risks to their business in the longer term.

The reactions we are seeing from some employers following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union is a case in point. The implications of Brexit for business are still far from clear, and yet our latest Labour Market Outlook report, which was able to compare sentiment immediately before and after the referendum, shows that some employers are already thinking about slowing down on hiring and reducing their investment in training and skills development. When you consider that many UK employers are already starting to see labour costs rise due to new policies like the National Living Wage, new pensions rights, and the proposed apprenticeships levy, it’s perhaps not surprising that they’re looking for ways to cut back on spending. But if hiring EU migrant workers is set to get harder and more costly, then the case for investing in your existing workforce couldn’t be stronger.

I also wonder how well-informed some of these hasty decisions are, and how much these businesses are really thinking about what will make them successful in the long term. Nearly a third of employers who employ migrant workers were unable to tell us what percentage of their workforce is made up of migrant workers, so there must be a question about how thoroughly they understand the structure of their workforce, how and where value is created in their organisations today, and where it will come from in the future.  HR has a vital role to play in helping organisations to take a more strategic view of the kind of workforce they’ll need for the future. In turn, we can help employers assess the different ways in which they can find, access and develop the talent and skills they’ll need to survive and grow, as well as helping to build more resilient and productive workforces.

The next few years will also be a very important time for HR professionals - in the UK and elsewhere - to help organisations understand the wider context and direction of employment policy and practice. Much of the debate in the run up to the referendum centered on the extent to which EU legislation determines employment law in the UK, and how to ensure we continue to balance the benefits of flexibility in the labour market with the need to protect the rights and interests of workers. But we also need to start thinking much more broadly about how the growth of different employment models, flexi-working, contract and portfolio working may require significantly new approaches not only to employment law, but also to our welfare systems and to the ways in which we invest in and develop skills in the future.

However, employment law itself sets out our minimum standards and obligations, and much of good people management and development practice is about doing the right thing by people. Tomorrow’s successful enterprises will be those that continue to invest in their workforces with a clear strategic context and understanding. The UK economy - and increasingly much of the EU economy - had positive momentum going into the referendum and if we over-react in the expectation of a downturn, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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