How does reserving unskilled jobs for UK workers benefit them, or the FE sector?

3 Mar 2020, 6:00

The proposed “points-based” immigration system has a number of seemingly ill-thought through consequences, argues Mick Fletcher

Many in colleges may have drawn some hope from the increasing number of senior figures calling for extra investment in FE, specifically in order to train UK workers now that we have left the EU. We certainly need more investment, and the arguments advanced sound superficially plausible. A moment’s reflection, however, suggests a dangerous lack of logic in what is being proposed, which risks undermining the sector’s case.

Ian Duncan Smith, for example, was recently on Radio 4 defending the proposed new “points-based” immigration system that envisages severe restrictions on access to the UK for those earning under £25,600 per year. Put aside for a moment the distasteful assumption that low-pay equals low-skill equals low-value (that argument is for another day) and concentrate on the logic.

British employers, he said, had grown lazy, and instead of investing in staff training had found it easier to recruit skilled workers from abroad.

So far most of us would agree. He quoted the example of a Belgian company that by investing in new technology and developing a highly skilled workforce was set to outcompete UK manufacturers who clung to a low-pay, low-value economic model.

“How does reserving unskilled jobs for UK workers help?”

Once again most of us would share his fears (and Remainers need to ignore the argument that if Belgians can do it within the EU, why can we only do it if we leave? That discussion, too, is for another day.)

The case he and others make is that we must stop employers recruiting unskilled workers from abroad so that they will invest in upskilling local employees. Reflect for a moment: how does that work? I could understand how restricting the number of high-skilled migrants might force employers to resort to training more locals: but how does reserving unskilled jobs for UK workers help?

Reducing the pool of applicants for unskilled jobs might help drive up wages for those jobs; but that would provide less of an incentive for such workers to invest in skills, not more, and give employers less cash with which to train them.

Employers might decide to move from low-value-added to high-value-added business models and look for highly skilled staff to work in the new environment – but in such cases they would still be free to recruit from abroad and might well prefer to do that rather than invest in local staff.

“Large parts of the economy depend on people skills – care, hospitality and retail”

Indeed, given that they would have had to invest in technology, they’d probably be less inclined, or able, to invest in training as well.

Finally, the increases in productivity that both require skilled workers and provide the returns with which to train and reward them well are simply not available to large parts of the economy that depend on people skills – care, hospitality and retail, for example. The Japanese are working hard to produce robots to work in care homes, in part because they do not want unskilled immigration: it sounds fanciful, but it does at least have a consistent logic.

There are many things that government could do to increase investment in training. It could, for example, reverse the serious cuts it has made over the past decade in its own adult education budget. It could encourage firms to invest by raising the minimum wage or by strengthening employment rights and the bargaining position of workers; and it could encourage individual investment through some sort of learning account.

To focus on cutting unskilled migrants, however, seems not to be promoting FE but rather using support for the sector to help justify a policy driven by other motivations altogether.

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