The UK has long relied on EU workers. Now employers must improve the training of homegrown staff, says Tom Richmond

“What we want to see is people here in the UK being trained to take on the jobs which are available” said the prime minister to Radio 4 listeners during the Conservative Party conference. With almost 1.3 million EU citizens currently employed in low-skill (e.g. cleaning) or lower-middle-skill roles (e.g. drivers), a new set of rules for who can enter the UK might force a major shift in employers’ thinking.

Achieving such a dramatic shift in employers’ attitudes will not happen overnight

Mrs May’s proposed approach is a sensible one. In our report Immigration After Brexit published earlier this year, Policy Exchange called for our immigration system to clamp down on low-skilled EU immigration (with some exceptions such as reintroducing the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme) but adopt a lighter-touch approach for students and professionals who wish to study and work in the UK. This was because we believe that the government must do more to encourage businesses to invest in their staff, particularly lower-skill roles, instead of simply allowing them to import workers from other countries. Since the mid-2000s businesses have too often cut their training budgets after gaining access to huge pools of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. This will no longer be tenable once the prime minister has implemented her new vision.

Several strands of government policy in recent years have attempted to encourage employers to engage with education and training in a more substantive way. For example, employers were asked to design new “apprenticeship standards” for their industry sectors. The new “T-levels” for 16 to 19-year-olds that the government wishes to introduce from 2020 are being overseen by panels of employers in each sector as well.

The apprenticeship levy for large employers that commenced in April 2017 was another clear signal from ministers that they wanted employers to invest more in their staff as part of the drive towards the target for three million apprenticeship starts between 2015 and 2020. Although the target has been frequently criticised (by me and many others) and the design and implementation of the levy have been far from perfect, the underlying goal of making employers pay closer attention to their recruitment and training strategies has only become more important following this country’s vote to leave the EU.

Mrs May’s proposed approach is a sensible one

Achieving such a dramatic shift in some employers’ attitudes will not happen overnight. The levy may have generated hundreds of millions to be spent on training but many low-skill roles that require minimal instruction are being routed through the government’s apprenticeship reforms. When standing at a hotel reception desk or serving customers in a coffee shop are labelled “apprenticeships” by employers, it seems that some businesses are still not taking their responsibilities seriously.

The fact that many employers are choosing to spend their levy money on providing management-training courses (including MBAs) for experienced members of staff will also do little to improve the prospects of current and future employees at the other end of the labour market. What’s more, it remains unclear whether the levy has increased the amount of training provided by each employer or merely encouraged them to rebadge their existing training schemes as “apprenticeships”.

Needless to say, any employer that has continued to recruit UK workers as well as develop and train their employees has no reason to be concerned about a new immigration system. If we are serious about providing better job opportunities, improving our economic productivity and helping people of all ages to progress in their chosen career, an over-reliance on low-skill EU workers is unlikely to help.

Many organisations, both large and small, view investing in their staff as the right decision for their business, and they deserve praise for doing so. Any employer that has not yet shown this same commitment to training and professional development should heed the prime minister’s words sooner rather than later.