From Chris Alderson, managing director, Edgetech

It’s been looming for decades – but it looks like it’s the painful combination of Brexit and coronavirus that will finally tip Britain’s skills shortage into a full-blown crisis.

Back in January 2019, the British Chambers of Commerce released a report claiming manufacturing was facing the worst skills shortage in 30 years. 

Having conducted a wide-ranging survey of UK manufacturers, they’d found that an alarming 81% were struggling to recruit and retain experienced staff.

Really, that should’ve been a wake-up call for everyone in the sector – a sign that, without urgent action, the skills shortage wouldn’t just severely hamper its prospects for growth, but seriously affect its ability to operate at even the most basic level.

But it was something we’d all heard a thousand times before. We all knew it was a problem – but it was one we’d learned we could repeatedly kick into the long grass without much consequence. The sector would muddle through, because it always had.

But this was of course before what will almost certainly be looked back on as the two defining events of the decade – Brexit, and the arrival of COVID-19.

The scale of the challenge was already enormous. A third of the British workforce is aged 50 or over, meaning that millions of the country’s most experienced workers will retire in the coming decade.

But since Britain officially left the EU in January 2020, an estimated 1.2m foreign workers have left the country. Around 90,000 Bulgarian and Romanian workers have returned home, and, according to jobs site Indeed, there are 36% fewer EU citizens looking for work in Britain than there were pre-Brexit.

The impact has been enormous, and felt in virtually every sector. The lack of qualified HGV drivers has been especially damaging – the Managing Director of supermarket chain Iceland recently revealed it was seeing between thirty and forty deliveries cancelled every day for that reason.