Policy changes made in the wake of EU Exit made it more difficult for new workers to enter the UK workforce from the EU, unless they qualify as highly-skilled or highly-paid.
Those already present in the UK workforce were able to protect their status via the government’s EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), and it is believed that most who were eligible, did so.
However, many of these established EU workers left the UK workforce during the COVID-19 emergency, perhaps because they prefer to be “at-home” during a time of stress.
There were around 2,411,000 EU workers in the UK in Q1 2020 (ie: just before the COVID outbreak). In the latest ONS data, covering Q3 2021, the number had fallen to 2,080,000.
This means that 14% of EU workers have departed the workforce, including some who worked in the supply chain for food and consumer goods (they may remain present in the UK, but not working).
As of Q3 2021, there is no sign of EU workers returning to the workforce.
By contrast, the number of non-EU overseas nationals in the workforce continues to grow slowly, in spite of COVID-19. This suggests that EU-specific factors may be at work.
One possible factor may be geography – it is relatively easy for EU workers to “go home” or to move to another EU country, whereas other foreign nationals may be more committed to living and working in the UK.
Alternatively, the EUSS may have given EU nationals options not available to others, making them more willing to leave and more able to delay returning.
Past behaviour is not an indication of future behaviour – it is still possible that EU workers who have left the UK will return, but they may require a compelling reason to do so.
Employers in the food and consumer goods industry should not assume that they will come back soon – it would be prudent to focus on developing local talent. IGD has multiple resources available to support this, including free learning materials.
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