Brexit & the labour market: Not enough British applicants

Industries from tech to agriculture warn of worker shortage post-Brexit because there aren’t enough Brits either willing or with the skills to fill jobs. 

Industry experts from a range of sectors including technology, hospitality, health and agriculture have told a House of Lords committee that there aren’t enough applicants from UK nationals to fill jobs. They pointed to a number of reasons for this including a lack of applicants with the right skills as well as people simply not being attracted to doing some of the jobs on offer.

Pret a Manger HR Director Andrea Wareham said that only one in 50 applicants were British and that around 65% of the chain’s workforce were non-British EU nationals. Wareham said that the high proportion of non-British workers was due to a difficulty in attracting them rather than selecting them. She added that whilst Pret a Manger had already been working hard to attract British workers, it would take time to “change hearts and minds”.

If I had to fill all our vacancies with British-only people I would not be able to fill them because of the lack of applications

Andrea Wareham, HR Director for Pret a Manger

Wareham said that any new immigration system should be data driven and based on experts in the industry rather than by politicians. She added that for them, any system would need to be “relatively fast and easy” as well as “cost-effective”.

Perhaps, surprisingly, even vocal Leave campaigner and chairman of JD Wetherspoon pubs Tim Martin advocated a “liberal” immigration system with the EU. Martin noted that successful economies around the world have had “quite a lot of immigration” and that “a rising population is good”. He said there was a case for preferential treatment of EU nationals for jobs based on pragmatism and proximity.

I do think a rising population is good.

Tim Martin, Founder and Chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc

Industries are also already feeling the impact of the vote to leave. Tim Thomas from the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) said that applicants from the EU were “drying up” whilst some EU workers here were choosing to leave.

Chris Cox from the Royal College of Nursing said that a dramatic drop in nurses registering from Europe was due to a number of reasons. One being the “uncertainty” of the residency rights of EU nationals here. Cox also said that increased levels of discrimination some of their nurses faced since the referendum had created an “uncomfortable environment” and that newspaper coverage had not presented the UK as an attractive place to come.

National Farmers Union (NFU) deputy president Minette Batters said that one of the problems many farms face is that it can be difficult to attract workers to very rural areas. And that many seasonal workers, the vast bulk of whom come from the EU, come year after year. This is despite all jobs being advertised in the UK and growers continually trying to engage with the UK workforce.

Machines not quite taking over yet

The committee also heard that advances in technology such as those in the use of robots and Artificial Intelligence had not yet reduced demand for roles and that it was unlikely to do so in the near future. EEF Director of Employment and Skills Policy Tim Thomas told the committee that what they were seeing was a change in the type of roles needed. He gave an example of one company who had invested in new technology but struggled to find workers in the UK that could use it. In fact, the nearest workers they could find that could use the technology came from the Czech Republic. Thomas warned that losing those workers would risk the investment they made in the technology.

For the agricultural industry, Minette Batters said that there are crops “reliant on the human hand”. And speaking about a “very rural part of Wales” where there had been a multi-million pound investment in sheep farming and processing, there was a very modern plant, which was as “mechanised as it could become”.

A warning over WTO rules & losing sheep

Speaking about the town in Wales which received the multi-million pound investment, Minette Batters pointed out that as well as risking a labour shortage, the biggest threat to it is if “the sheep go”. She said that “if we get the trade deal that we have the potential of getting, the sheep might be gone”. If the UK leaves the EU with ‘no deal’ and had to fall back on WTO rules, tariffs would hit the agricultural industry. This would inevitably raise costs and risks pushing them out of business.

If we get the trade deal that we have the potential of getting, the sheep might be gone. We might just have New Zealand flying in.

Minette Batters, Deputy President for the National Farmers Union

Batters added that there has long been a need to review labour shortages in the agricultural industry – both for seasonal and permanent workers. She said there is a risk that sectors would shrink to the size of the workforce with investment going elsewhere. She urged the government to look at the impact of WTO rules on rural Britain because labour shortages and tariffs provided a “perfect storm” that risked current and future investment. Referring again to the sheep farm and processing plant in Wales, she said that the investor has an incentive to be there because the sheep are there. But if he doesn’t have a workforce, why would he keep his business there?

Given that there is such a huge risk to the economy and to so many businesses, it seems crazy to forsake our EU membership to “take back control” of immigration when there is evidence that it’s not needed or of little benefit. Indeed, just the possibility of immigration restrictions on EU nationals is already having a negative impact on businesses.

The industry experts above were giving evidence to the Economics Affairs committee as part of an inquiry into Brexit and the Labour Market. You can watch the session at

Image: © Cristina Nixau /
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