London – Exit from the European Union could worsen the already wide skills gap in the UK manufacturing and process industries, senior officials of the Chemicals Industries Association (CIA) have warned.
The chemicals and pharmaceuticals manufacturers’ body struggled to raise this issue during the pre-referendum debates, CIA chief executive Steve Elliott said at an 11 July press dinner.
"With all the noise about immigration, It was always going to be difficult to get across the nuanced message, that we needed high-quality people," said Elliot – noting skills issues at various levels of the industry.
These views were echoed by CIA president and Ineos director Tom Crotty, who said that most UK chemical companies, especially the international ones, have "extremely international" management teams.
"Then you have particular skills gaps right down to the shopfloor," he said. "So if you look at for instance maintenance and construction as well, there are certain big skills gaps which we just cannot meet from the UK this resource.
This was often because "you don't need them 100 percent of the time,” explained Crotty, recalling how when Ineos was building a new facility in Runcorn some year ago, it used every single reinforced plastics pipe fitter in the country. That, he said, was just 50 percent of what was needed to do the job.
"So without the ability to bring that sort of scale in quickly, your project is at risk, warned Crotty.
And that happens a number of times.
“We find with big maintenance jobs we often employ EU/European labour. I think there is skills issue there,” he explained.
And while there is a view that, over time the UK will deal with that as it becomes more independent, the chemicals industry boss cautioned the UK did not have an appropriate education system in place for that to happen.
Another issue for the chemicals leaders is the uncertainty over the position of European people already living and working in the UK chemicals and pharma industries.
“They hear reassurances that there will be no immediate change, but the only word they focus on here is ‘immediate’,” said Elliot. “They are quite spooked by all this, and read a lot into what people are saying.
So there is an issue for the existing British workforce about what [Brexit] means for their possible career moves. And [for companies] as well as being about access to talent it's also about retaining talent.”
For his part, Crotty said that the common view across all sections of UK manufacturing industry is that “there must be free movement of people if we are going to have free movement of goods and services. Anyone with half a brain could tell you that.”