Is NI headed for a skills Brex­o­dus?

Cathal O’don­nell, Re­gional Direc­tor at Bright­wa­ter

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De­scribed as the mass exit of in­di­vid­u­als, par­tic­u­larly EU na­tion­als, and cor­po­ra­tions from the UK, there’s no doubt ‘Brex­o­dus’ has the po­ten­tial to cause ma­jor dis­rup­tion to the econ­omy if the crit­ics’ fears ring true. As with many of the po­ten­tial neg­a­tive out­comes from Brexit, it would seem that due to North­ern Ire­land’s unique ge­o­graphic, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal status it could have more to lose than most when it comes to a pos­si­ble Brexit-in­flu­enced mi­gra­tion.

Some com­men­ta­tors have sug­gested that the po­lit­i­cal im­passe, the seemingly never-end­ing Brexit un­cer­tainty and the scare­mon­ger­ing of a hard bor­der will tempt both NI na­tives and their EU coun­ter­parts to re­lo­cate south of the bor­der where they can re­main part of the EU.

Our close prox­im­ity to the Repub­lic of Ire­land could make this a more appealing and eas­ily-ac­tioned op­tion as work­ers nav­i­gate the on­go­ing Brexit am­bi­gu­ity.

Of course this skills re­ten­tion prob­lem is noth­ing new. North­ern Ire­land has been here be­fore with the well-doc­u­mented brain drain — the phe­nom­e­non which was height­ened dur­ing the Trou­bles whereby the bright­est and best stu­dents would leave to study else­where and never re­turn.

This is a trend which has less­ened to vary­ing de­grees in the peace years with many re­turn­ing home when they start a fam­ily. Nev­er­the­less, it is still an is­sue which could re­turn.

Re­as­sur­ingly, at Bright­wa­ter a skills Brex­o­dus isn’t some­thing we have seen tak­ing hold in North­ern Ire­land.

Our clients are nat­u­rally cau­tious and have been mak­ing any prepa­ra­tions they can. De­spite job opportunit­ies and good pay, a move south still has many other fac­tors to take into con­sid­er­a­tion, such as housing costs, health and ed­u­ca­tion fees and the over­all cost of liv­ing.

And whilst UK ci­ties like Lon­don, Manch­ester and Bris­tol rate highly among young, skilled pro­fes­sion­als, we haven’t noted a sig­nif­i­cant change in the pat­tern and volume of mi­gra­tion there.

Un­der­stand­ably, Brexit re­mains high on the agenda for firms and can­di­dates alike as they look ahead to the eco­nomic landscape. Whilst un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing busi­ness deals and de­ci­sions about re­cruit­ment may have slowed things some­what as we ap­proached the orig­i­nal end-of-march dead­line, the re­cur­ring theme among firms here is a de­sire to keep go­ing and pro­gress­ing with their busi­ness plans and there­fore con­tin­ued re­cruit­ment which helps build con­fi­dence in the job mar­ket.

We have also seen many of our clients, par­tic­u­larly in the le­gal ser­vices and man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tors, sig­nif­i­cantly in­vest in North­ern Ire­land in re­cent years and they are com­mit­ted to their teams here and won’t be mak­ing knee-jerk re­ac­tions based on what-ifs.

This pro­gres­sive and de­ter­mined mind­set is heav­ily in­flu­enced by the high volume of SMES rep­re­sented in North­ern Ire­land’s pri­vate sec­tor, who can’t rest on the lau­rels of large multi-na­tion­als and quite sim­ply need to get on.

With this in mind, it’s im­por­tant that busi­nesses don’t waste the time af­forded by the re­cent de­lay and do as much prep as pos­si­ble. De­spite the Oc­to­ber 31 ex­ten­sion, there still re­mains sig­nif­i­cant un­cer­tainty about the ac­tual out­come of the EU ref­er­en­dum and de­spite it look­ing less likely, the risk of no-deal has not been ex­cluded from one of the many pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The re­al­ity is that no-one knows the out­come of this long-de­bated change or how it will di­rectly or in­di­rectly im­pact the job mar­ket and those in it. In fact, any im­pact is un­likely to be felt in­stantly and will take a num­ber of years be­fore the real ef­fect is felt. All we can do is work hard to en­sure we have the best pos­si­ble peo­ple for the job at hand and con­tinue to build busi­nesses to re­tain the great tal­ent here.

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