Northern Ireland firms 'worried about filling jobs' if migrants leave
Companies in Northern Ireland are putting off decisions on investment until there is further clarity on how Brexit will be implemented, it has been claimed.
Danske Bank said that maintaining access to skilled labour had become the biggest fear for Northern Ireland business leaders since the vote to leave the EU.
The company added that access to talent was a concern after it held a series of events with firms over the last month.
According to the bank, businesspeople were fearful over the "unknowns" for the economy here - and one of the most vexing was a fear of future restrictions on access to the labour market and skills.
Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated she is prepared to sacrifice access to the single market in order to free the UK from the obligation of freedom of movement.
But freedom of movement has enabled firms - particularly big players in food manufacturing such as Moy Park - to fill posts with workers form overseas.
Shaun McAnee, managing director of corporate banking at Danske Bank, said: "There has been a lot of debate and discussion with our customers over the last few week,s and we have listened intently to what business owners have been telling us. Among the most pressing issues that came to the fore were access to skills beyond Brexit, the need for migrant workers in our economy, the state of local apprenticeships and the impact of the living wage on Northern Ireland companies."
Danske Bank said that businesses relied on skilled and non-skilled workers alike and needed clarity on whether staff would be allowed to remain.
It also warned that without workers being permitted to remain, firms in Northern Ireland were concerned over whether they would be able to recruit Northern Ireland people to replace them.
At this week's Conservative Party Conference, Home Secretary Amber Rudd indicated the Government could require firms to make public information on numbers of overseas workers and demonstrate that they had tried to fill posts with people from the UK before employing people from overseas.
But Mr McAnee said: "Business owners around the table told us that if migrant workers leave, people coming out of college are often not work-ready enough to fill the gaps. Where jobs are unskilled they don't believe there are enough local people who will want to do them."
In addition, firms were worried about the impact of the Government's apprenticeship levy. Mr McAnee explained: "The general consensus in all of the meetings is that, while we wait to see what Brexit means, ambitious companies are pressing on and trying to win new business.
"But we also got feedback that suggests customers are holding off on major strategic investment decisions until there is greater clarity, which is concerning.
"One thing all the leaders at our meetings agreed on is that over the coming months, we will require strong leadership from our politicians, both at Westminster and at Stormont."