After Pandemic and Brexit, U.K. Begins to See Gaps Left by European Workers

After Pandemic and Brexit, U.K. Begins to See Gaps Left by European Workers

LONDON — Agnieszka Bleka has had to work hard in past years to find companies that need workers, spending much of her day reaching out to local businesses in the northern English city of Preston where she is based.

But now, Ms. Bleka, who owns Workforce Consultants, a company that finds jobs in Britain for mostly Eastern and Central Europeans, says that she is fielding several calls a day from companies looking for temporary staff and that she can’t keep up with the demand.

“The fish pond is getting smaller,” she said. “And people are picking and choosing the jobs, or leaving as well, going to their home countries.”

Free movement between Britain and Europe technically ended at the start of 2021 because of Brexit, but the effects were masked by strict pandemic travel restrictions. Only lately, as the economy picks up steam, is the new reality beginning to be fully felt.

Migration experts say that there is not enough reliable data to say whether perceived shortages of workers are the result of Brexit, the pandemic or some combination of the two. It is also unclear whether they are temporary or reflect a more enduring shift. But there is little question that many companies are having considerable trouble filling jobs.

Ms. Bleka described it as “an employees’ market,” particularly among the workers she typically places in jobs in industrial warehouses, construction, landscaping and other low-skilled jobs.

“It’s like 180 degrees,” she said. “Where we used to have lots of people and not so many vacancies to fill up, now it’s the other way around.”

But others less tethered to Britain moved back to their home countries, even before the pandemic hit, particularly those from Eastern and Central Europe who filled those lower-skilled jobs that now seem so tough to fill. Brexit and the anti-immigrant sentiment that helped drive it made many feel unwelcome, while others were discouraged by the sharp drop in the pound’s value after the vote to leave the European Union.

As a member of the Polish community whose children attend a Polish school in Preston, Ms. Bleka said that the number of students had noticeably dropped since the pandemic began.

“There must be something that is taking people back, and Covid definitely didn’t help,” she said, noting that some workers may be finding a better quality of life and stronger economies in their home countries now than when they left.

Post-Brexit immigration changes, which utilize a points-based system, were intended to restrict the movement of lower-skilled workers from Europe in favor of higher-skilled workers in specialist roles.

Nevertheless, Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, a research body at Oxford University, said it was difficult to draw a direct line between the changes in the country’s immigration system and the worker shortage. Lack of reliable migration data, the fact that some workers are still on furlough and the uncertainty of the pandemic have all made the true picture more opaque.

She has written about how the migration data collected in Britain during the pandemic offers an imperfect picture, and warned that estimates of Europeans leaving by the hundreds of thousands may be way off. The true figure, she says, is more likely to be closer to tens of thousands.

But that could still be significant, she added.

“At the macro level, the impact of changing the system in this way is actually not expected to be very big,” she said. “But for individual employers, it can be absolutely huge.”

Industries like food manufacturing and food processing, which have relied heavily on low-skilled European migrants, could find their growth hampered by a lack of workers, she noted.

Before Brexit, Ms. Sumption said, “What we might expect to see is that as recruitment picks up again, new people would come into the U.K. using their free movement rights, or people who had previously left coming back.” Now, that is no longer an option.

The hospitality industry in Britain has been one of the major employers of European migrants and is already suffering from an inability to recruit new arrivals.

When England’s first lockdown was lifted last summer, the Australian restaurateur Bill Granger said that he had encountered no problem taking on staff for all four of his Granger & Co. locations in London.

But this time around, he said, it has been a trial.

After a number of prolonged shutdowns, and with the added complications of Brexit visa changes and broader travel restrictions, he said he had found that many of his former employees had moved on. Some, such as waiters and chefs from France, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Spain, as well as Australian baristas, had returned home. Others had moved out of hospitality work entirely.

“We opened and closed, and opened again, and what’s happened now is we’ve lost all those people,” Mr. Granger said. Even with the added help of a newly contracted human resources team, the company is still struggling to fill positions.

And with a smaller number of people working longer shifts because of the vacancies, he said, his current staff were stretched: “All our team are absolutely exhausted.”

While some hospitality workers have taken the chance for a career change, others are still on furlough because of the pandemic and not ready to apply for new jobs yet.

Mr. Granger’s restaurants in London have in the past relied on an influx of young European and Australian recruits, and they are no longer traveling in the numbers they once did because of tighter restrictions on movement.

“Everyone is happy to be back, but also just with losing people, it’s really, really hard,” Mr. Granger said.

Jack Kennedy, an economist at Indeed, a job search site, said that the demand for hospitality workers was outpacing the number of available workers across the sector.

“The job postings have been rising so fast and the supply of candidates just really hasn’t been able to keep up with that,” he said, adding that a reliance by some industries on foreign-born workers who may have left during the pandemic had probably been part of the problem.

But the dearth of employees is also driving up pay, he said, with hourly wages advertised for hospitality roles across the country increasing. That raises the question of whether other industries struggling to fill roles will follow suit, and how big of an impact on the economy the shortages will have.

Ms. Sumption, of the Migration Observatory, said she was surprised to see so many reports of shortages, because unemployment in Britain is actually quite high — and is higher among residents who hail from the European Union than among those born in the country. But, she noted, in industries like food manufacturing and food processing, workers from European Union countries made up most of the staff, and those sectors could be feeling more of a crunch.

“Some employers have a business model that has really relied on free movement, and for those employers, there are much harder questions about how they deal with it,” she said. “Are they able to adjust to a world without free movement, or will they just do less, or even go out of business?”

She noted as an example that, after large number of Eastern European workers arrived after 2004, there was a large amount of growth in Britain in the production of soft fruit, which is labor-intensive, because the influx of workers made it more affordable.

“One of the kind of long-term impacts that one should expect to see is a change, not necessarily in the total economic prosperity of the U.K., but in the composition of the economy,” she said. “So we could have less growth in labor-intensive sectors that have relied on free movement.”