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What impact will Brexit have on STEM recruitment?

In an economy ravaged by COVID, STEM organisations are well aware of the urgent need to source the skills and talent needed to survive, recover, and ultimately grow in the post-pandemic landscape. But with Brexit presenting an additional obstacle to talent attraction, how can businesses safeguard their future and empower their workforces to succeed?

The United Kingdom officially left the European single market and EU customs union on 31 January 2020. 

While the extent of the political and economic fallout will be argued for years to come, for STEM businesses, the most immediate post-Brexit concern relates to upcoming changes to immigration and employment law. 

At 11pm on 31 December 2020, the free movement of people between the UK and the EU will end, to be replaced by a new points-based immigration system. This means the overall pool of candidates who are free from immigration restrictions will become smaller — making it more difficult to attract, retain, and retrain the right people.

With the STEM sector set to face an inevitable increase in competition for talent (there are 2.31 million EU nationals currently working in the UK, representing roughly 8% of the country’s labour force), HR managers need to think carefully about recruitment practices and how to incentivise existing staff. 



Separation anxiety

On the surface, things don’t look too rosy. Already, a flurry of major multinationals including Dyson, Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover, Panasonic, Honda, and HSBC have moved operations outside of the UK. 

Further dangers of a no-deal Brexit include:


  • New tariffs
  • Tighter border controls
  • A weaker pound
  • Supply chain interruptions
  • The inability to provide financial services to the EU

Science talent is taking notice of these warning signals. According to SRG’s 2020 STEM Survey (in association with New Scientist), Brexit has had a mixed effect on scientists’ assessment of their international mobility and future job market prospects. In such an environment, keeping talent acquisition on the C-suite agenda is a difficult undertaking.

But with new opportunities rising amid the choppy waters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the bleak outlook forecasted by many may not prove to be as severe as first thought.


Immigration and employment in the post-Brexit environment

On 20 February 2020, the UK government announced that “top” international scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and researchers will be able to apply to work in the UK under a fast-track visa scheme, with no cap on the number of people who can benefit from the scheme. This so-called Global Talent replaced the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa.

To allow a limited number of highly skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer, the government still intends to introduce an unsponsored highly skilled work visa. According to the Home Office’s document:

“Beyond January 2021 and in line with the recommendations from the MAC, we will create a broader unsponsored route within the Points-Based System to run alongside the employer-led system. This will allow a smaller number of the most highly-skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer. This route will not open on 1 January 2021 and we are exploring proposals for this additional route with stakeholders over the coming year. Our starting point is that this route would be capped and would be carefully monitored during the implementation phase. Further details will be shared in due course.”


In the post-transition period, the UK STEM sector’s ability to attract the best talent from around the world will undoubtedly be a concern. Aside from immigration considerations, hiring managers have to determine how to encourage people to want to move to the UK for work. Unless a clear visa route becomes available, few will likely choose to negotiate a convoluted immigration system when similar job opportunities are more accessible and readily available in other locations.

Net immigration into the UK is at a sixteen-year low. This brain drain at universities and research institutions has led to valid concerns about talent shortages in the STEM sector. Indeed, a who’s-who of multinationals have already made drastic changes — whether putting deals on hold, cutting UK workforces, moving certain operations out of the UK or upping sticks altogether.

At the end of October 2020, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will invest in “radical changes” to the UK’s skills development. But while these plans may safeguard the UK’s skills in the long-term, it still does not address the immediate challenges faced by STEM employers looking to bridge the skills gap. Indeed, some of the training courses can take years to complete and won’t be available until Spring 2021 — which may prove too late for some businesses.

Disruption as an opportunity for evolution

If there’s any silver lining to the current COVID crisis, it’s that businesses have readied themselves for short-term uncertainty to ensure long-term survival — making them more resilient to the potential pitfalls of the post-Brexit transition.

As a response to ongoing change accelerated by factors as varied as technology, AI, the global pandemic, and Brexit, the following trends are already taking place in HR strategy:


  • A realignment of business values and culture. 
  • A focus on long-term flexible working. With competition for talent hotting up, businesses need to give employees more control and autonomy over how they work.
  • An investment in people through upskilling, retraining, and apprenticeships.
  • Keeping non-UK talent pipelines open via a sponsor licence. To employ people from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, the UK is actively encouraging businesses to apply for a UK visa sponsor licence by 31 December 2020. When free movement ends for European nationals on 1 January 2021, companies will also need a sponsor licence to employ EEA and Swiss citizens coming to the UK for work.

These trends exemplify a widespread understanding among STEM organisations that change and evolution are integral to business success — and that the time for action is now. With the June 2020 OECD economic output report suggesting that “the world economy is on a tightrope, ” the sector needs to seek new avenues to plug the critical STEM skills and talent gap.



Tapping into mobile talent

In one counterintuitive development, Brexit is actually freeing up a highly-skilled talent pool for UK-based STEM companies to tap into. 

Despite the initial wave of uncertainty and gloom among HR leaders, many STEM companies are actually ramping up their hiring efforts and treating the volatility around Brexit as an opportunity. This is especially true for STEM businesses whose UK hubs perform work such as R&D or COVID-19 vaccine development — in other words, work that is not entirely dependent on location.

Some companies are even stemming the tide of the so-called “Brexodus” and moving operations into the UK. In 2019, NTT Ltd, a Japanese-owned global technology services company, moved its headquarters to the UK as part of its global expansion. And earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced plans to create <1,000 new tech jobs in London

Moreover, the 2020 Global Talent Competitiveness (GTCI) Index ranks the UK the twelfth-best talent market in the world based on its ability to “enable,” “attract,” “grow,” and “retain” talent. The index also says the UK has the world’s third-best pool of “global knowledge skills” — ie. the skills held by workers in professional, managerial, or leadership roles. 

Though it would be foolish to downplay the business uncertainty that continues to blight Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, there’s still plenty for forward-thinking STEM businesses to be optimistic about.


According to Steve Black, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Topia, “most likely, the corporate Brexodus is freeing up in-demand workers who want job security in the UK.”

With the uncertainty of impending relocation or job losses spreading across workforces since 2016, it’s hard to blame employees for turning to companies that offer security.

As Black goes on to say, “the more digital the firm, the more shielded it is from the effects of Brexit.” In other words, by adopting a global talent mobility strategy, companies such as Facebook and NTT are capitalising on a situation that has left competitors foundering. Whether we like it or not, the future is digital.

The lesson for HR teams? While some talent is becoming scarcer, other talent pools can be readily accessed with the right strategy in place.

By getting to grips with immigration law and properly harnessing talent mobility data, businesses can take bold action amid uncertainty and grasp opportunities that may, at first glance, seem counterintuitive. In doing so, the British STEM sector can keep UK science at the forefront of global innovation.

And with critical labour and skills in short supply — a trend that may be exacerbated when freedom of movement comes to an end — workforce planning will surely become a priority for STEM businesses of all sizes. By taking a strategic approach to the workforce, businesses can identify the skills and talent needed both now and in the future. For more on how to futureproof your talent pool and scale sustainably, read our guide to strategic workforce planning here >

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