With Britain’s protracted EU divorce continuing to provoke uncertainty and concern among businesses keen to understand the trading landscape beyond January 1 2021, Jack Simpson, North East England Chamber of Commerce training and global network advisor, highlights the need to future-proof our workforces in readiness of the Brexit challenges that lie ahead

There will be 1287 days from the UK voting to leave the European Union, to it actually doing so on January 1 2021, and still we’re awaiting final details for our never-ending journey

Now I know the theme of this issue is skills and people, and we will start there in relation to Brexit, but I hope you will indulge me later on with some trade talk.

Part of ‘Global Britain’ will mean setting up a new migration system – and as we build a more developed and advanced world, it will be vital to attract employees across the skills spectrum, to make sure the UK remains on the front-lines of world-leading technologies and industries.

As with all things in Brexit, the new migration system is still a work in progress, but it will be points-based, i.e. if the applicant matches certain criteria (qualification, salary, English-speaking etc) they will be able to enter the UK.

There are key challenges here, with one being how we define skills.

Being multi-lingual has been overlooked as a skill by the UK in the past, but it is a key requirement for service industries and pan- Euro managers that need to communicate efficiently with clients and customers.

Secondly, what does it mean for foreign graduates who receive grades but fall short of other criteria, like salary thresholds?

Will we have to accept that students will work and study here, only to return to their home countries, losing out on their skills?

This is one small example but highlights how the way we define skills can make the UK less attractive to work or invest.

Then there are sectors that rely on migrant labour, like food and agriculture.

For example, an ice cream factory would double its workforce in summer as demand rises, or farms to bring in the harvest.

The National Farming Union estimates a points system would impact the agriculture sector, and the 80,000 migrants it brings in, though similar concerns could be shared among care or hospitality.

A mechanism to support this movement must be explored if we are set on a points-based system.

One policy gap that has always puzzled me is that between fees for attracting skills and filling that gap internally.

The UK Home Office tracks who enters the country, what they’re going to do, and collects a fee for its troubles – the ‘immigration skills charge’ (much like goods attracts tariffs).

However, that money then just ends up… somewhere. It could go towards a world-class track and trace system, or the DIY project of a given minister.

But forgive me if I am missing something obvious.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that migration charge into developing local education bodies or reskilling for new jobs?

It is no secret that automation, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is coming, if it is not here already, so preparing employees for the future seems like a no-brainer.

Likewise, if we can see there is a trend of CONTACT magazine writers entering the UK, would it not make sense to fund CONTACT magazine writing courses here in the UK?

But this is just one of many issues to be thinking about – Brexit provokes a lot of them.

This is the surest I have been that we are leaving the EU, at the third time of asking.

The Prime Minister now commands a sizeable Government majority, so Parliament is less fragmented on Brexit, and a bill was passed last year to obstruct Parliament debates on foreign treaties (make of that what you will), placing less obstacles in Brexit’s path.

The Johnson Government has also set out its stall on what Brexit will look like.

We are almost certainly heading for a bilateral relationship with Europe, people like to point to Canada, but it’s probably better to imagine the relationship Switzerland has.

Even a Swiss-style deal will mean more documents, which Government estimates will rise from 55 million to 300 million, new tariffs (tax on imported goods) and changes in funding, data and tax.

There can be easements in these areas, and unique mechanisms, like shared fishing waters or free movement of people; the close proximity of the UK to the EU will naturally 21 lend to a more integrated relationship.

We may have to be realistic that Brexit may make the UK less competitive internationally, but that is why it is so important UK businesses and technology remain world- beating in other departments (such as a skilled workforce), reinforcing UK quality and continuing to compete with European neighbours.

Brexit presents another huge and prized skills challenge. With the estimated rise in documentation, comes the need for trained professionals and customs agents to handle and process them.

The Chamber has been running (and will continue) its Foundation Award in International Trade to support businesses in up-skilling their trade-facing staff.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy a fix though, as experience is vitally important in handling documentation and understanding different countries processes.

On the other end, the UK haulage industry estimates 40,000 new drivers will be needed for future demand.

Coupled with Brexit, the more drivers stuck in border checks or queues, the less capacity there will be to physically move goods.

Hopefully this exemplifies the impact on skills and demonstrates why it is important to remember it is not always about attracting top academics when talking about skills.

After all, we could have the smoothest border policy in the world, but it would be useless if there was nobody to move the goods!