BUSINESS LEADERS have warned that a tightening of immigration controls as part of reforms to Britain’s relationship with the European Union will make it even harder to recruit skilled staff in Yorkshire.
The Confederation of British Industry, which hosted an EU debate for members in Leeds today, said Yorkshire employers face challenges in finding workers with the right training.
A CBI survey found that accessing graduates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and maths is an issue for nearly three quarters of Yorkshire businesses.
The same survey found that 25 per cent of these companies could not recruit graduates in these areas.
“It’s a massive issue now and that is only set to worsen in the future,” said Lucy Thornycroft, regional director at the CBI, who warned that limiting free movement of people would affect the region’s global competitiveness.
The Prime Minister has argued that Britain’s net migration of 300,000 people a year is “not sustainable” and has told the European Council that he wants to exert greater control over numbers arriving from within the EU.
Ms Thornycroft said: “We have already expressed concern around the immigration cap that the Government is pursuing. The concern is that it stops businesses being able to attract or access skilled workers that they need from across Europe.
“Construction is a widely cited example of that where we just don’t have the right skills... so we do have a significant European workforce in many construction projects and that’s really important in making sure we can get things built.”
She also highlighted the important contribution that international students make to Yorkshire’s strong universities and further education colleges and in “creating a culture of innovation” at the region’s academic institutions.
The EU debate was attended by companies representing the retail, construction, manufacturing, university, waste management and professional services sectors. It took place at KPMG’s new offices in Leeds.
Ms Thornycroft said: “Everyone around the table was very clear from a business point of view they are all in support of staying within Europe, though there are still areas they would like to see reform.”
She added that access to the single market and its 500m customers across Europe is key to CBI members in Yorkshire.
She said some members recognised the benefits of regulation in making it easier to do business across the continent, but others expressed concerns about the “creep” of the EU’s powers, particularly when it focuses on domestic areas.
Ms Thorneycroft said: “Businesses see the benefits of EU membership from an economic perspective... on creating jobs and growth and making it easier to do business.
“There is some frustration that the amount of regulation that has come out of the EU and the quite substantive cost that has to businesses is something that needs to be addressed, while recognising that the regulation is often positive when it is looking at that single market.
“A different example that was talked about - and a challenge for the UK - is the Government often taking EU regulation and gold plating that. The common example is around public procurement. The gold-plating that the UK Government puts on regulation actually drives up the cost of businesses bidding for public work and often in many cases makes it impossible for a lot of SMEs to bid for public work.”
She said business leaders’ top priority is to see the EU strike global trade agreements to boost jobs and growth, principally the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Ms Thornycroft said TTIP would standardise costs and remove barriers to doing business with the United States, which is the UK’s biggest inward investor and also one of the UK’s biggest export markets for manufacturers and service sector companies.
She said a single digital market would also bring economic benefits for UK businesses and should be a focus for the EU.
Ms Thornycroft said businesses across Yorkshire remain positive about the potential for devolution deals to drive economic growth.
She added that companies are particularly optimistic about the opportunity to have a greater local say on investment in infrastructure.
However, it is unclear when local politicians will reach an agreement on the terms of a deal for West Yorkshire.
Ms Thornycroft said: “I think there is a concern that a lot of the focus has been on politics and geography and we are keen that we continue to make progress in this area and get deals and actually focus on delivery.”