03/04/2017 12:34 BST | Updated 01/04/2018 06:12 BST

Business Argument Should Be About Skills We Need, Not Migration

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Immigration has been a talking point again this week, as the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and Brexit has begun in earnest.

Two queues of commentators will form over the coming months. The first will take turns to argue that immigration is too high and is placing too much pressure on public services. They will, no doubt, celebrate the Prime Minister's decision to end free movement, arguing that leaving free market access is a price worth paying to regain control of our borders.

The second queue will largely represent business and argue the benefits of migration to the UK's economy, culture and our society. Some will lament the end of free movement, arguing against restrictions on EU workers. Others will present killer facts and try to myth bust negative perceptions of migration.

It is not that I disagree with the sentiment, I think they are absolutely right. We would be a poorer country and a poorer society without immigration. I just don't believe they are the right arguments to make because we've been here before. For instance, when business voices have publicly criticised the quality or work ethic of British school-leavers, in contrast to hard-working migrant workers, they have risked exacerbating public concern that neither employers nor government are taking sufficient responsibility to address the skills issue.

Macro-economic arguments can also be counterproductive. I've written before about a comment a friend made straight after the referendum, "immigration might be good for your GDP, but it doesn't help mine".

Frankly, as I set out in our new report with British Future, 'Immigration after Brexit', business needs to focus on the core issue - finding the right workers. Immigration only matters when employers can't find the people locally with the right skills or who are willing to do the job.

So what can businesses do to plug the gap? I've spoken to lots of people about access to labour after Brexit and I am hearing lots of encouraging stories. Many businesses are beginning by changing their recruitment policies and doing more to recruit harder to reach workers - school leavers, older job seekers, those with disabilities and ex-offenders. They are also looking at how their terms and conditions can be adapted to attract those who need more flexible work patterns. Not a solution for all businesses or all roles of course but it's a good start.

Other conversations have centred around plans to upskill residents. This is nothing new - businesses that don't invest in their employees will not succeed - but Brexit has brought those plans in to sharper focus. However for many skilled roles, this needs time and can't be achieved in the two years before we Brexit.

Automation tends to be another theme; the end of free movement probably won't mean the rise of the robots but employers are thinking hard about how they can reduce their need for lower skilled workers, consequentially increasing productivity. That said, automation isn't necessarily a consequence of free movement ending, it is just the way of the world.

The balance for business is to be upfront and celebrate these sorts of initiatives. If they work perfectly and no vacancies go unfilled, then business is sorted. If not, as seems likely during a period of near full employment, you have earned the right to talk about immigration. Moreover, you can do it from a position of strength.

But even then, the arguments have to be balanced. Immigration only works if it is controlled. As a starting point that means:

A system that can be properly policed to prevent abuse and exploitation;

Sanctions for those who abuse the rules;

Labour market testing to prevent displacement; and

Prevailing wage controls to prevent undercutting.

This is not just about winning over the public or politicians. If the system is neither controlled nor enforced there will be people who exploit it to their advantage. That won't help the businesses who are playing by the rules.

That does not mean the business voice should be entirely silent. The immigration debate isn't just about filling vacancies, it is about preventing vacancies in the first place. European people already living in the UK need and deserve a promise that they will be able to stay here after Brexit. This isn't about immigration, it is about doing the right thing for people who have thrown their lot in with the country.

There is also a clear economic need to make this promise. Businesses need certainty that their workers will be with them from one day to the next. They also need a settled workforce - people who are not worrying whether they and their families will need to leave their home.

My simple advice to business is that if you're asked about immigration talk about protecting European people already here and all of the great things you're doing to create opportunities for British workers. Be clear about the time you need to train British workers and, once you've created the opportunities and tried new techniques, you can have meaningful conversations about the difficulties you have finding suitable residents locally.