Migrant workers, British shirkers? The UK skills/attitude deficit

By David Banks, CIPD Public Affairs Officer, @DC_banks

Migrant workers can be key assets for UK employers, often helping to provide valuable skills which enable organisations to meet consumer and customer demand. CIPD research has found that employers believe migrant workers for all roles have ‘better job specific or technical skills’ and ‘work ethic’ than many UK-born workers. At the same time, does the need for migrant labour expose a skills deficit amongst the UK workforce, or even perhaps, an attitude deficit? And should employers be willing to invest more in UK-born workers?

Firstly, it’s important to understand why employers choose to recruit migrant workers. CIPD research has highlighted that the main reasons for employing both EEA and non-EEA migrant workers is because they generally have better job-specific skills, better work ethic, better qualifications and work experience; particularly among EU migrant workers.

A recent CIPD member consultation suggests that demand for EU migrant workers may also be for other reasons, including a high turnover rate (particularly among young people) of UK-born workers; the practice of network-hiring and the active role played by recruitment agencies.

The notion that migrant workers harbour several positive workplace attributes, such as better work ethic, indicates that employers, rightly or wrongly, perceive that some UK-born workers do not have the same level of dedication to their roles as migrant workers, particularly in low-skill sectors.

There may be several reasons for this: firstly, employers identified that anti-social hours and low pay deter UK workers from applying for some roles, or staying in roles for a significant length of time. Similarly, it has also been said that some UK-born workers believe that many low-skilled roles are beneath them or do not give them progression opportunities as quickly as they would like. While this is not the case across the board, employers do need to do more to highlight and promote opportunities for in-work progression to all workers, where those opportunities exist within their organisation. At the same time, I believe that schools, careers services and Jobcentre Plus have roles to play in tackling short-termism, managing expectations and highlighting that all roles, no matter what skill level, can have value for employees.

In terms of migrant workers having a better work ethic, this isn’t an entirely surprising suggestion. Nor is it likely to be true in all cases. The majority of migrant workers have made the commitment to come to Britain for the purpose of gaining employment for financial or career gain - not, as the perception may be, to claim welfare benefits, which Peter Kellner explores in a recent article. Many non-EEA migrants have a limited amount of time they are able to stay in the UK for, and so often work longer hours and are more motivated to reap the relative financial rewards that they are able to in the time that they have in Britain. Similarly, higher migrant qualification levels also have a positive impact on their productivity, as found by a recent NIESR report.

However, more highly qualified and driven migrant workers suggests that, to a certain extent, our education system is failing to equip young people with the skills and attitudes they need to meet workforce demand in some sectors, and that we may be failing to up-skill our existing workforce to compete on a global level.

CIPD members also highlighted that there are some drawbacks of employing migrant workers over UK-born workers, with particular reference to the poor communication and language skills that some migrant workers possess. Poor linguistic skills can often lead to migrant workers forming cultural cluster groups in workplaces, which can be detrimental to overall staff cohesion and is another relatively common comment made by employers in relation to low-skilled migrant workers.

There has also been the suggestion that recruiting migrant workers has a negative impact on wages for UK-born employees, enabling employers to keep pay levels low. However, as the below table highlights, the majority of employers report that having a good availability of migrant workers has no impact on wages, with 8% of employers reporting that migrants have both an upward and downward pressure on wages within their organisation.


Migrant workers can have a positive impact on organisations: they increase diversity and provide a valuable source of skills. At the same time, there is the age-old suggestion that migrant workers are taking roles from UK-born workers during a time of relatively high youth unemployment. However, the reality appears to be that many UK-born workers either have not got the skills or attitudes that enable them to compete with many migrant workers in some sectors.

Although this certainly isn’t always the case, should UK employers be more willing to recruit, train and up-skill UK-born workers? And what role should our education and skills system play in ensuring that young people leave education equipped for the world of work? And finally, is it time for a proper industrial strategy which links our national employment and skill requirements with more effective education and training?

Please let me know by posting your comments below


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  • Anonymous

    People should avoid damaging stereotypes and generalisations. An employer should hire people based on their relevant qualifications and their potential- they shouldn't worry where the individual was born. All workers should be given access to training so that they can contribute, and enjoy contributing, to the organisation. Employers shouldn't play workers off against one another in terms of pay or conditions- a race to the bottom will eventually impact negatively on the quality of the products and/or services the organisation is generating.

  • Anonymous

    It may be a futile wish but if the professionalism, which still exists in  Education and Training, were to be encouraged and more heavily relied upon to provide for the ever changing needs of employers, then we would have a far more dynamic education and training structure.

    The frequent, imminent arrival of the 'Inspection team' results in many tens of staff hours (hundreds or even thousands in the case of colleges) involved in compiling paper evidence of conformity to the many criteria presented as a condition of continued funding, both from the funding and examining bodies.

    If only this valuable time were spent in student/pupil contact and the Inspectors roles were to become that of maintaining up to date knowledge in the profession, we would have a far more effective weapon against the skills shortage. Even if this does not come to pass, at least a recognition that, the skills and knowledge which exists at the Teaching/Training delivery point is often more up to date and relevant than any written standards which may take months to compile and launch and are hence obsolete before implementation.

    There is an urgent need to return to the learner as the focal point rather than an ability to impress the inspection team with impeccable documentation and to do this through the knowledge and professionalism of the Tutor/Teacher who should be freed of the constantly changing targets, qualifications and documentation that does not directly impinge on the improvement in prospects of the student.

  • If you follow UK (economic) history, migrant workers taking up basic jobs is nothing new. What is new is migrant workers taking up highly skilled and/or leadership roles (Directorships, Banking and Football being good, albeit extreme, examples...Engineering, IT and Healthcare are perhaps more common and thus more concerning).

    UK workers and education leavers often seem strangely unwilling or unable to be "employable", whether that is taking up the basic jobs or achieving the qualifications required to be employable and more skilled jobs. I appreciate that this is in part due to the lack of "traditional" industries in the UK, but that isn't new either...individuals, businesses and government institutions have known that there needs to be a change to both attitude and aptitude for many years, and their failure to devise and deliver a successful plan to address this is shaming to all (when compared to other countries).

    All that