Region must plan for post-Brexit skills shortage

David Howell, East Anglia area lead for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Picture: Ian Burt

David Howell, East Anglia area lead for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Leaving the European Union presents an opportunity to develop a new skills policy for East Anglia, says Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) area lead David Howell.

Like many areas of the country, East Anglia is facing a skills shortage across some of its most technically-demanding industries.

But the challenge in this region has been particularly acute. Research by New Anglia LEP has shown that, in 2015, over four in 10 vacancies in East Anglia's transport and digital sectors went unfilled – substantially above the national average.

This challenge risks being exacerbated by our departure from the European Union. Many skilled EU professionals have come to East Anglia to work in sectors that will be vital to our economic growth. But our ability to continue to attract such workers will remain uncertain until the UK has negotiated its future relationship with the EU.

This reality has at least compelled policy-makers to confront the inadequacies of the skills system. Put simply, too few young people in Norfolk and Suffolk are being equipped with the skills necessary to match the ambitious economic growth plans business leaders have for this region.

The planned introduction of T Levels for 16 to 19-year-olds is a welcome step, and could greatly improve the quality of the technical education available to students. But T Levels will not be a success unless their design takes into account the priorities of our small firms, who constitute over 98% of East Anglia's businesses.

Our main concern is that the proposed stipulation that work placements should be an average length of 50 working days will prove too burdensome for many small firms. Nor do we know enough about the incentives that will be offered. Taking on a young person is a major responsibility and businesses will need support – whether through financial assistance, or simply guidance to deliver a high-quality experience for the student.

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Small businesses might also deem offering placements a more worthwhile investment of their resources if lasting links are forged with the colleges.

Brexit is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to transform elements of the policy landscape that might otherwise constrain the region's growth. The implementation of an inclusive skills system that recognises the unique challenges that small businesses face would be a good start.

The FSB is hosting a debate on Brexit, in conjunction with Future50, at the Forum in Norwich on Friday March 23 from 5.30pm. For more information and to book, go to

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