British jobs for British workers?

Sam Desborough looks at the suggestion that the role of immigration in filling job vacancies will have long-term intergenerational implications in the UK

One and a half million. This is the number of people in the UK – according to most recent figures from the Department of Work and Pensions – who have never had a job, 600,000 of whom are under the age of 25. Using welfare reform to tackle such unemployment figures and reduce benefit dependency has become a priority for the Coalition government, but has reignited the discussion that arose from Gordon Brown’s much maligned call in 2007 for ‘British jobs for British workers’.

Voluntary discrimination

Iain Duncan Smith’s speech last week to the Spanish think tank Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies (FAES) highlighted immigration figures as a major factor in the growing number of Britons labelled as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

His speech urged employers to ‘give them [young people] a chance’, and suggested that immigration ‘should not be an excuse to import labour to take up posts which could already be filled by people inBritain’. His words imply that employers prefer to take on migrant workers rather than British workers, and if this is a reality, it has considerable intergenerational implications.

Educational deficit

One of the strongest responses to the speech came from the Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce, who stated that ‘after 11 years of formal education, employers say they get kids coming to them who can’t read, who can’t write, who can’t communicate’.

Further indictment of the education of young people in Britain came from Neil Carberry, the CBI director for employment policy, who, with regard to youth unemployment, said that ‘the challenge is to ensure that more young Britons are in a position to be the best candidate’ for many jobs.

So is it true that migrant workers provide superior labour to keep British companies competitive, and that young British workers are just not equally well prepared to enter the workforce? Or as a nation, do we need to face up to the issue of immigration and to learn how to balance its positive economic effects with the obligation to ensure that the younger generation and future generations have decent employment opportunities?

Filling the gap

Unemployment and welfare dependency were acknowledged by Iain Duncan Smith in his speech as intergenerational issues, as he set out his aim to avoid ‘losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness’.

To label this as hyperbole ignores the reality that the UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up without a parent being in work; in the case of lone parents, for instance, less than 60% are in employment, compared to around 70% in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Policy initiatives are being designed to ensure that a culture of benefit dependency does not extend any further, and have an effect on the younger generation and the next.

Despite Iain Duncan Smith’s suggestion that highly skilled immigrants are occupying low-skilled positions, there is no getting around the fact that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against migrants from EU nations.

With the figure of net migration from Eastern Europe increasing by 50,000 from 2010 to 2011, it appears that the number of migrants competing for jobs in Britain is not going into decline. They are generally more willing to accept hard jobs with long hours, paid at the minimum wage rate; and the ‘Polish Builder’ has grown into almost a cult hero figure, doing a great job for a very competitive price.

Escaping the benefits trap

The welfare reforms taking place under the coalition government aim primarily to ‘make work pay’ and ensure that taking a job on the minimum wage is a viable alternative to claiming benefits.

But for the younger generation and future generations, their options for jobs need to be strong and with good prospects, rather than limited by the employers’ desire for higher profits that causes them to favour migrant workers. Given this context, it may be unfair to claim that the younger generation in Britain are the ‘Am I Bovvered generation’ who turn their noses up at minimum wage jobs or are not motivated to work hard at them.

Immigration and unemployment

Immigration is a highly emotive political issue, and whether this actually links clearly with unemployment amongst British people, particularly the younger generation, needs careful assessment.

A recent report released by the London School of Economics (LSE) explores the connection and comes to some very interesting conclusions. The key point that emerged was that steady progress in tackling youth unemployment was made in the decade prior to 2004, before the figures began to decline as the Employment Service was given incentives to focus on other groups rather than young people.

The date 2004 is significant: this was the year that saw the greatest single enlargement of the European Union, leaving the people of those nations free to arrive in Britain and provide increased competition for jobs, creating the perception that youth unemployment was heavily impacted by immigration.

Fit for purpose

The problem of youth unemployment, however, may not actually be caused by immigration, but more by young people being inadequately prepared for the workplace.

The LSE report suggests that programmes to help young people at schools in deprived areas are more helpful to high-ability students and leaves those who are at ‘the bottom of the ability distribution’ not catered for or provided with the right support to become more employable or be supported in the career that they choose.

League tables may be partly to blame for this outcome, by causing more attention and investment to be directed towards those striving towards university; with less focus for those who are not best suited to continuing academic studies. The extension of the school leaving age has been one strong step towards ensuring that more people leave school with skills that make them more employable, but this has to be matched with investment and good, frequent careers advice.

Rewarding merit

Employers, and those representing them, strongly insist that they strive to select the best candidates for jobs, regardless of their nationality, and they will select British candidates if they are the best. They cannot use positive discrimination to help cut welfare dependency, therefore must be given a reason to hire unemployed Britons ahead of migrant workers.

Complaints about employers preferring immigrant workers as they represent better value for money can potentially rumble on forever, but this cannot be changed easily. Immigrant workers are valuable to the economy because of the work they do and the competition stimulated by their presence.

The implications of immigration for the younger generation, and for future generations therefore can only be addressed by improving the skills and employability of young people so that they can compete more effectively, rather than through any direct controls. Both the schools and the government employment services must improve the ways in which they provide support of this nature for young people.