The last official migration figures to be released before the general election reveal EU workers are choosing to leave the UK.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report shows that at 36%, the majority of leavers from the UK in 2016 were EU citizens, with 117,000 emigrating. This is an increase of 31,000 on 2015.

Other key findings include:

  • There was a significant fall in net migration to 248,000. While someway off the current government’s target of 100,000, it is a significant decrease of 84,000 from 2015.
  • More people left the UK to take up a job in another country – 116,000 – 17,000 more than in 2015.
  • 52,000 non-British citizens left the UK to return to their home country – the majority (43,000) were EU citizens. The total figure had increased from 29,000 in 2016.
  • Work is the most popular reason for international migration, with 275,000 people coming into the UK for work in 2016 – down 33,000 from 2015.

UK employers facing a reduced talent pool

The figures appear to suggest an exodus of EU citizens, as a direct result of the uncertainty surrounding their future immigration status in Britain. This would confirm concerns previously raised across UK industry of EEA workers leaving the UK en masse.

EEA nationals remain a significant proportion of the UK workforce – currently around 7%. Many sectors rely heavily on this demographic, including hospitality, leisure, retail and construction – notably where the demand for unskilled and low-skilled work is not satisfied by British workers.

In other sectors such as healthcare, staffing shortages are already critically low, and the loss of EU workers is likely to compound an existing crisis.

With so many EU workers now departing the UK, this leaves UK employers facing a number of challenges:

  • Access to a reduced pool of workers, particularly for lower skilled posts.
  • Prospect of increased immigration fees relating to those EU workers who do remain, as a result of possible changes in UK immigration rules and the removal of free movement of labour.
  • Cost of choosing to access labour from outside the EU via the Tier 2 route.

Employers are advised to review their recruitment strategies now in anticipation of these challenges becoming more acute.

For example, we are seeing many employers taking a proactive role in supporting their EU workers to secure permanent residence status ahead of formal Brexit. The education sector in particular has taken this approach as universities and schools look to reassure their workforce while safeguarding their talent during this period of upheaval.

Other approaches we have seen include a renewed focus on training British workers looking for example to older personnel and younger through for example apprenticeships.

This movement may well be music to the government’s ears as in its mandate to promote the domestic labour market through policy such as the Apprenticeship Levy. However, for employers, this is clearly a longer term solution which may not satisfy the immediate shortages and issues.

An alternative is for employers to look further afield, beyond the UK and Europe, to meet their talent needs. Hiring overseas workers requires investment and compliance with immigration rules. For example, a sponsor licence is required to bring a worker to the UK from outside the EEA.

Navigating the uncertainty

These latest figures highlight a stark reality facing UK employers today – should migrant workers, including EEA nationals, continue to jump ship, businesses will need time and resource to find, recruit and train replacement workers.

You can access the full ONS survey here.