With most news of Brexit heavily skewed to gloom and doom, talking with Helen Allen is a breath of fresh air. As Director of Strategic Accounts at Randstad she’s seen a lot of industry change during her 17-year career, but she’s bracingly optimistic about the future under Brexit. As we discovered during our talk, when faced with challenges like a diminished talent pool and a potential mass exodus by non-UK nationals, positivity can be a powerful weapon.
As we talked, Allen considered the current impact of Brexit through the lens of her specialty, the construction sector. The overall mood amongst employers is one of watchful waiting: “at the moment, everyone’s being a lot more cautious. It doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody’s hiring, but they’re waiting to see what happens at the end of March.
We’ve seen a downturn in the number of permanent vacancies on the build side. Civil is very different and still very buoyant as that’s where a lot of the investment is.”
Technical white-collar hires too are looking relatively healthy and Allen attributes this to the overall feeling of ‘wait and see’ that pervades nearly every sector: “I think at the moment, employers are looking for the flexibility that comes with taking on temps.”
When asked about the construction industry’s overall mood, Allen says that hiring isn’t where the chief anxiety lies: “I think everyone’s more concerned about [projects] that are either in tender or in the pricing stage and the question of whether they will get signed off.”
Signing off isn’t an issue limited to construction. Brexit will surely affect the way that recruiters handle compliance and registering new candidates, but Allen doesn’t foresee it being much of a problem. “There will be probably be additional checks and balances to implement. But it’s not the issue we’re worried about.”
The main thing on her mind right now is employee migration: “the biggest issue is people with lower threshold skillsets leaving the country.”
As one of the co-authors of Randstad’s The build up to Brexit report, based on a survey of 10,000 construction workers, Allen discovered that 32% of EU nationals have considered leaving the UK because of Brexit. The reason? Concern that there wouldn’t be enough work.
This is, Allen argues, a problem of perception, not policy: “we’re seeing this as an indication that the construction industry has to do a big PR push now to show workers that there’s lots of work here.” A lack of faith in the UK job market won’t affect the workers with highly specialist skillsets – they tend to stay put as their skills are prized commodities – but Brexit anxiety could result in a real shortage of generalists.
In anticipation of this shortfall, Randstad is taking a proactive stance. This means urging the Government to keep the Shortage Occupations list under regular review as well as the minimum salary requirements for Tier 2 visas.
When quizzed about Brexit’s effect on the cost of recruiting workers, Allen dismisses the idea of a significant downturn as overly sensationalist. Though she anticipates costs going up it “will have more to do with legislation change than with Brexit…things like IR35, pension increases, national minimum and living wage increasing employers’ spend, although for all the right reasons.”
If a downturn does occur, Allen argues, then economies of scale will kick in quickly. If the recruitment industry starts to see the skill gap in specialist areas that occurred in construction seven to eight years ago, prices will naturally go up just as they did then.
She notes that even now, without any particular cause, there are skill gaps because there aren’t enough people entering the industry, “so when you do find a Estimator or a MIECA specialist they demand very high salaries.”
This calm, balanced attitude is characteristic of Randstad’s overall approach to handling Brexit. “As a business, we will flex as we need to. We’re lean and don’t hire excessively.” Positivity too is a vital tool deployed both internally and externally: “it’s about making our clients aware you need to be putting some good news out there.”
But good news isn’t just about what you say, it’s about what you do. To this end, Randstad is working to implement long-term change to guarantee a more robust industry. They’ve been actively working with the Construction & Engineering industries creating initiatives designed to attract young people, promote more women into leadership roles and create better training and mental health programmes.
It’s heartening to see how passionately Allen still feels for her profession: “I started on a trades and labour desk at Hays, was there seven years and with Randstad for ten. When I transferred onto the perm desk I really realised ‘this isn’t just [about] a quick buck, it’s potentially changing someone’s life’.”
In her decade with Randstad, Allen has seen the business grow from strength to strength, but “[we] have the same ethos as we did when we were a small independent company.” And it’s this sense of burgeoning optimism that characterises our talk. Even Brexit is a challenge to be overcome, not something to be feared:
“I think recruitment over the next couple of years is going to be a very interesting place… we’re totally committed to seeing Brexit through and will absolutely ride every wave that comes the industry’s way.”
Read more interviews with top recruitment professionals here, or learn more about how Engage’s Agency Back Office software can help your agency operate lean and make compliance checks simpler for new candidates in a post-Brexit world.