Government says businesses need to start hiring British

Firms should be hiring unemployed Brits rather than cheap immigrants, says Iain Duncan Smith. But should they, really?

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
It’s not just down to the Government to solve the youth unemployment problem - businesses need to do their bit too, according to Iain Duncan Smith. In a big speech on immigration in (weirdly) Spain today, the work and pensions secretary will urge UK firms to stop hiring immigrant workers for jobs that could easily be done by young unemployed Brits. But there are a couple of problems here. One, this argument is predicated on the Government successfully improving employability, which isn't going to happen overnight. And two, while it might be in the overall interests of the UK to get more young people off the dole, is it ever going to be a rationally sensible hiring choice for a particular business?

Duncan Smith will be bigging up the Coalition's welfare reform plans, which are intended to reduce dependency on state handouts and give people more incentives to go to work. There'll also be a greater focus on trying to prepare young people for the workplace as part of the proposed welfare-to-work programme - which clearly has to be a high priority, given that the youth unemployment rate is currently not far off 20%. At this point, he says, businesses need to play their part: 'Government cannot do it all. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance, and not just fall back on labour from abroad.'

His suggestion is that due to the previous lot's 'slack' approach to immigration, businesses have become too ready to look abroad for cheaper labour - even for lower-skilled roles that could be easily filled by British workers. With the Coalition making lots of determined noises about cutting immigration to a more manageable levels (though how doable this will prove, given that any EU citizen can come here and work whenever and for however long they like, is a moot point), he wants this to change. And the argument is clear: having a fifth of young people out of work (with little chance of getting back into it) could have all sorts of unhealthy social and economic implications for the UK.

But businesses may feel a little uncomfortable about this. Most CEOs will tell you that the calibre of young people applying for their jobs leaves an awful lot to be desired; that's an entrenched problem with the education system that won’t be miraculously solved by a few welfare-to work programmes. And while it may be in our collective interest to reduce that youth unemployment figure, if you were a business owner on a budget looking to recruit, and the candidate from overseas is cheaper and possibly better qualified, would you not feel perfectly entitled - possibly even duty bound - to take that person over the British applicant? Should they really be expected to put the collective interest over their shareholders' interests?

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