Northern Irish companies missing opportunities to secure overseas talent

Eversheds Sutherland and Queen’s University Belfast are hosting an event in Belfast on Tuesday, focused on trading with Europe in relation to people and access to labour.
Audrey Elliott

ACROSS the UK and Ireland, recruitment and retention of skilled employees are a challenge for business owners and employers in the current environment.

However, Home Office figures indicate that Northern Ireland businesses may be missing out on an opportunity to overcome these challenges through the recruitment of overseas talent.

Since Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, the employment market across the UK has become increasingly competitive, with skills gaps emerging across nearly every economic sector.

This is an issue which threatens post-pandemic recovery and growth for all shapes and sizes of business. Through its third quarter economic survey results, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce has identified recruitment difficulties as “one of the most persistent and growing concerns” among members.

According to the survey, almost all manufacturing (93 per cent) and services (84 per cent) businesses are struggling to recruit skilled and experienced staff from the resident workforce and who, crucially, stay with their businesses in the medium and long term.

While this is a challenge which has been driven by the pandemic, the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union must also be taken into consideration.

According to the Department for the Economy, between the 2016 referendum and 2021, around 19,000 EU-born workers have left Northern Ireland. For industries like manufacturing and engineering, which are vital to the local economy, this represents a huge loss of talent. Foreign and overseas workers have always played an important role in regional labour markets across the UK and Northern Ireland, and as the local talent pool shrinks, replacing these workers can be difficult.

Across the UK, businesses are looking overseas to replace these workers, but our analysis of Home Office figures has found that, of Northern Ireland’s six cities, only Belfast has more than 35 businesses with a sponsor license which will allow them to sponsor skilled workers from outside the settled workforce. This is significantly lower than other large UK cities like Glasgow, Liverpool, Oxford, and Cambridge where the number of registered sponsors is at least 200 per city.

Unsurprisingly, this has meant that in Northern Ireland businesses have sponsored just over 1,000 skilled workers since 2020 – much lower than other parts of the UK, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

While there is an expense involved in securing these certificates, this may not necessarily be prohibitive as the returns could be greater than the initial layout. Low uptake, instead, may be attributed to lack of awareness of the scheme among Northern Ireland businesses or a lack of confidence in what it entails. Overall sponsorship of overseas talent could be an excellent opportunity to widen the skills pool and help businesses in Northern Ireland overcome the skills challenges that are a barrier to growth at this time.

As the largest and most established international law firm on the island of Ireland, we are looking forward to using our global expertise through the NI Chamber’s International Champion series, which is aimed at supporting Chamber members trading globally and growing their international footprint. We believe this initiative will be crucial in helping local businesses as they seek to expand internationally and contribute to Northern Ireland’s exporting success.

As the NI Chamber’s ‘International Champions’, Eversheds Sutherland and Queen’s University Belfast are hosting an event in Belfast on Tuesday morning focused on trading with Europe in relation to people and access to labour, as well as standards and dealing with regulatory divergence.

Audrey Elliott is partner, immigration and employment at Eversheds Sutherland