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CBI: UK needs an immigration and training rethink

For the UK to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, vast swathes of the population will need retraining – and overseas IT specialists will also be needed

The CBI has warned that significant reskilling is required across the UK workforce in the wake of the coronavirus. In its Building a world-class innovation and digital economy report, the industry organisation said the country faces major talent gaps, which will affect business innovation.

The report predicted that as the economy recovers from the pandemic, all employees will need essential digital skills to use recently adopted technologies at work and to innovate.

According to the CBI, many businesses will also need some employees with advanced or specialist digital skills, such as software engineering or artificial intelligence skills, to develop new, technology-enabled products and services. It estimated that changes to work will mean that a million workers will require upskilling as their role evolves, with a further five million going through significant job changes that require retraining.

To combat this skills gap, the CBI called on the government to provide a strong digital skills pipeline, which it said would help to tackle the challenges of radical job changes, growing unemployment and inter-generational fairness.

The report warned that the UK faces the twin challenges of an expected rise in unemployment because of the coronavirus and a growing generational skills challenge. CBI research has estimated that nine out of 10 workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030 to ensure everyone is ready for a technology-enabled workplace and can benefit from increased job satisfaction and higher wages.

With 11.7 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills, the CBI said a step-change is needed in adult learning and upskilling. It added that Brexit has deterred people from coming to the UK to work.

“Even though immigration rules have yet to change, the UK’s digital and innovation economy has already found it harder to attract the people and skills from overseas that it needs to thrive since the result of the EU referendum in 2016,” it said. “Continued rhetoric from the government about reducing numbers has also made the UK a less attractive destination.”

Read more about the tech skills crisis

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Although the government has removed some of the barriers preventing foreign workers from obtaining visas, the CBI said the new immigration system needs to cater for any size of business, including sole traders and freelancers.

It said in the report: “The new immigration system must be accessible and affordable to businesses of all sizes on day one. Otherwise, even if digital roles are permitted under the new system, employers will be unable to practically hire the people and skills from overseas that they need to grow.”

The CBI also said it wants to see the government ensure that people and skills from Europe and around the world who currently contribute to the UK’s digital and innovation economy on a self-employed or freelance basis can continue to do so.

It urged the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to join forces to build jobs and skills hubs that harness the expertise of colleges, universities, unions, businesses and local digital skills partnerships. It said these hubs should have two roles – providing rapid matching of people to new job opportunities, and sourcing high-quality training in areas of future demand in the local labour market.

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