Can HR answer the Irish border question?

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Northern Ireland has found itself the focal point of Brexit negotiations, but for those that work there a resolution can’t come soon enough

Brexit negotiations are 95% complete, says Theresa May; all except for the question of the Irish border. But the 310-mile border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland is more than a question – it’s a conundrum that has stoked uncertainty and concern among the region’s employees and employers.

Reassurances about the border were given when the UK and the EU agreed to work out a ‘backstop’ deal that meant even in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit there would never be a hard border on the island of Ireland. What this ‘backstop’ looks like has yet to be agreed, however, and the resulting delay is further fuelling concern in the region.

Brexit-induced uncertainty, a collapsed national executive, and a worsening skills shortage are some of the cards the business community has been dealt. But what role do Northern Irish HR leaders have to play in tackling these issues? And with Brexit negotiations changing daily is it even possible to plan for the unknown?

The need to provide certainty about the Irish border is particularly acute for the thousands of people that cross it each day to go to work. The EURES Cross-Border Partnership estimates that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people make the crossing daily in both directions to commute to work.

The city of Newry is one area of Northern Ireland that benefits from this flow of labour. Post-Brexit, Newry will be the UK’s closest city to the EU, sitting just five miles from the border and perfectly positioned between the capital cities of Belfast and Dublin. At the height of the Troubles in the late-1980s unemployment in Newry was at 26%. Thirty years on with the benefits of peace, the single market and a frictionless border, Newry is home to seven of Northern Ireland’s top 100 businesses and boasts almost full employment.

Colm Shannon, CEO of Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade, says the most immediate priority for the area is ensuring that cross-border workers can still get to work. A longer journey due to checkpoints, coupled with a potentially weaker sterling, could deter people from crossing the border to work in the North. “More serious concerns would be around access to a talented pool of labour,” adds Shannon. “Employees have a choice and will exercise that in a way that suits their future careers and personal circumstances.”

The last thing the region needs is a worsening of an already-acute labour shortage. The most recent economic survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce revealed that 75% of businesses that are currently recruiting are struggling to attract workers with the right skillsets. Northern Ireland has also seen a 26% drop in the number of EU migrants working there in the two years since the referendum.

Concern about this skills shortage is echoed by the CBI. Sam Davidson, group HR director for Henderson Group and chair of the CBI’s People and Skills Committee, would like to see a skills shortage occupation list for Northern Ireland similar to that being proposed in Scotland, and a lowering of the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for migrant workers. But he also warns that Northern Ireland’s skills shortage needs to be tackled on all fronts: “A lot of these labour shortages are more systemic. It goes back to our education, our technical training and our career choices.”

Complicating the situation still further, any attempts to address skills training will have to wait as the country is still without a sitting government. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive nearly two years ago has caused a succession of bureaucratic delays, frustrating businesses across the region. “There’s a lot of skill strategy work... that hasn’t yet been implemented,” says Davidson. “Our preference is to re-establish the Northern Ireland executive and we continually lobby all of the political parties to find a way forward in that, but there’s nothing on the horizon that we can see.”

Until such a time where the skills shortage can be redressed at a domestic level, the North will remain reliant on migration from across the Irish border and the wider EU. According to David Collings, professor of human resource management at Dublin City University, the climate of uncertainty in the North means that businesses will have to work harder to recruit top talent from overseas. “One potential strategy for businesses would be to target groups who might be more inclined to come back to the North – for example Northern Irish citizens who are working abroad might be able to be repatriated,” he says.

He adds: “If I was leading an organisation I’d certainly be running some scenario planning around what the outcomes are likely to be, and trying to make some best guesses about where we’re likely to land and have some contingencies in place. March 29 is going to come around very quickly.”

Emma Marmion, HR director for Prestige HR, works with businesses on both sides of the border and has noticed a stark difference between how they are preparing. While organisations in the South are more sure of their circumstances, their Northern counterparts seem weighed down by uncertainty. “We have no benchmark for this,” she emphasises. “This is unprecedented.”

Marmion says that rather than focusing on what they don’t know, like the outcome of Brexit negotiations, she is encouraging her clients to use what they do know by talking to their employees about their concerns, particularly those that will have to cross the border for work.

“How long will it take to get the kids to school across the border? How long to get to the local shop? These are the questions being asked by people and it’s natural that those questions will come into the workplace too,” she says, adding that organisations must look to remote working and flexible options for employees that may face a tougher commute.

Marmion has noticed increased willingness to proactively prepare among Northern Irish employers recently, however, noting a greater focus on employee mental health and “keeping everybody well” during such uncertain times. “Businesses are starting to upskill,” she states. “They are really focusing on having their leaders ready to manage change so that when it does come they can react. There is preparation happening, it’s just not in the conventional way that you would think.”

With five months until the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU there’s little sign of the uncertainty abating. The only thing that is certain is the crucial role HR will have to play going forward. “What is going on here is having a direct impact on our people,” says Marmion. “The questions that are coming up are very much about the HR profession, and people are looking to us to know what to do.”

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