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The UK should go global and embrace public-private partnerships – like the Basques

With a Brexit settlement negotiated, the Managing Director of Bizkaia Talent, Ivan Jimenez, looks at the challenges and opportunities for the UK beyond March 2019 – and how, with the right approach, it can better compete in the global skills market writes Ivan Jimenez.

The race for skilled professionals is intensifying. Demographic and migratory shifts across Europe are impacting the ways governments and industry approach policy and recruitment – and forcing countries to recalibrate their offers, in an effort to attract and retain the world’s ‘brightest and best’.

It’s a challenging time, and in the UK, a further, and unique, set of circumstances have been added to the mix, with the Brexit vote and its fall-out.

This has engendered some uncertainty and impacted confidence and investment across the country’s main industries – to the extent that eight out of ten businesses, polled recently by the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI), reported fears about their resilience and growth for the year ahead.

It has also heightened recruitment pressures, according to studies by the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) and Deloitte, with businesses, already facing domestic skill deficits, and the difficulties and costs, in bringing in global hires, now having to contend with the possible loss of their European Union (EU) workforces.

But, even with this layer removed, the UK, like other European countries faces challenges in recruitment.

For like other European countries, it shares in the fate of battling a ‘demographic timebomb’ and the loss of a large section of its STEM worker base to retirement – two areas that have been the focus of UK government initiatives since 2010, in the form of increased investment for STEM education and provision in schools; the promotion of apprenticeships; and on-going campaigns to cut business ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy.

 So, we shouldn’t pretend that these issues were borne by, or being neglected in the run-up to, the Brexit vote. It’s just that they’ve now been parcelled together and brought into a sharper focus as a result.

And some will say this is no bad thing. For businesses have long griped about barriers to growth and how there should be closer links between the public and private spheres.

So at least with Brexit, things can change – with intense scrutiny, and haste, now being placed on the development of a single model for skilled migration, for example. This will need to be in place by 2021, at the latest, and there’s no reason to suspect UK lawmakers will pull up the draw-bridge or adopt a hard-line approach. Because the country needs talented workers, and, in turn, a system that reduces the burden and costs for its businesses.

Its welcome, then, to see, amongst the grey and gloom of the Brexit coverage, that the UK Government is now engaged on this issue with business leaders – and that its outline policy, beyond 2021, looks comparable to the “pro-immigration” spirit of countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose policies are intended to select the characteristics of migrants.

To thrive post-Brexit, the UK needs to not only remain open to global talent in principle – but have a strategy for ensuring that skilled professionals still want to come.   The UK  could perhaps look at the experiences of the Basque Country over the last decade as a guide.

For we experienced a comparable set of challenges back in 2008, and have since made attracting skilled professionals a top priority.

This was born from our losing thousands of skilled professionals from our labour forces between 2008 and 2014 to northern Europe. This caused a sluggish period of growth, for us, and was only set on a path to recovery when the Biscay Government and its business community came together and strengthened their ties, and set out how they could tackle the crisis.

Collectively, they made a heavy investment in education – particularly in STEM – to the extent that we now have the highest proportion of science and engineering students in Europe. They have also created public-private programmes, such as Bizkaia Talent and its ‘Be Basque Network’, which I run, for identifying, mapping, and headhunting global talent for businesses such as the global energy and engineering giants, Iberdrola and CIE Automotive.

And, as well as this, the Biscay Government harnessed its tax-raising autonomy and to offer professionals relocating to the Basque Country a 15% income rebate, and developed a range of support networks to help those considering moving with the logistics of relocating – from renting a house to finding the right school for their children.

This collaborative action has given new life to the region and helped us to turn the corner – and the same model could apply for the UK. Because, with Brexit, there’s now an opportunity for government and industry to recalibrate and engage on policy – and a chance for the UK, going forward, to present an inclusive and comprehensive  offer to the brightest minds and to create pathways for its economy to source, nurture, and integrate talent into its supply chains.

Ivan Jimenez is the Managing Director of Bizkaia Talent. More information can be found at www.bizkaiatalent.eus/en

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