Immigration Policy: Impact on the Convenience Sector

The UK’s approach to immigration, announced on Wednesday 19 December with the publication of a consultation paper on the rules that we will enforce after the UK’s exit from the European Union, will of course have implications for the convenience sector. From talking with government officials and members, and consulting our own research, my assessment is that the secondary impacts of this policy will be greater than the primary impacts.

Firstly, some context: many of the people who now run convenience stores came to the UK (mainly but not exclusively from outside the EU) without a well-paid job lined up or qualifications that would have deemed them to be high-skilled, but have built businesses, employed people and made huge local and national economic and social contributions to the UK. Salary thresholds and “job roles” can be a bit misleading here.

The proposed new policy is in essence for people from the within and outside of the EU to be treated the same when it comes to immigration to the UK, and for higher skilled workers to be targeted by adopting a £30,000 salary threshold above which it will be easier to gain the right to live and work in the UK. This means that the group being restricted from moving to the UK are lower-skilled and lower-paid workers in sectors like agriculture and care, and yes, retail.  Aside from some store managers, store level staff in convenience stores will earn less than this amount, so on the face of it this will restrict the labour market from which we draw our colleagues. 

About 2% of convenience store staff are non-UK EU nationals, so if such a small proportion (still several thousand individuals, of course) of our workforce is likely to be restricted, is this a low level issue for ACS and the sector? I think the impact could be far greater. Thinking about your local community, you are competing for people alongside manual labour and other service industries. If their talent pool is weakened by the loss of EU nationals, what are they going to do in response? Some of those businesses (as per the prophecies of many who have argued for remaining in the EU) will move their operations elsewhere, which could actually lead to more spare capacity in the local labour market. Probably more likely is that these businesses will step up their efforts to recruit staff through wages and other benefits which was one of the outcomes that many of those who argued for leaving the EU had hoped for.

So that leaves you having to fish for talent in a smaller pool, where the costs of employing people is likely to be higher, and given that the single biggest success factor for a convenience store is its location, it’s unlikely you’ll be moving your store to somewhere else in the EU. 

What’s the best strategy for retaining and recruiting colleagues in this scenario? Our research of these people and of the businesses that employ them shows some really important non-monetary benefits of working in the local shop. Fairly obviously there’s the location of the store that means the average travel time for staff is 13 minutes, and most of our colleagues walk to work. But there’s also the social interaction that comes from working in store, and the flexibility of working shifts that fit around other commitments – notably childcare and looking after elderly relatives. We head into this new phase of the UK’s labour market in a good place: most of our colleagues rate working in convenience stores highly in terms of job satisfaction and the quality of training, and most see a future within this sector rather than feeling they will have to move outside of it to meet their career needs.

Nonetheless, let’s make sure we don’t sleep walk into a world where we can’t find the right people to run our stores and interact with our customers. Possibly along with some of you, I’ve chuckled cynically at the creation of “Head of Talent” directors and business buzzwords about attracting and keeping the best people in our business. Finding, motivating and keeping good people is all common sense and just fair and sensible management, isn’t it?  Maybe note for the labour market that Brexit – and low unemployment and wider demographic factors that I’ve not gone into here – may be creating a labour market where people have and are more capable of exercising choice about where they work based on a wider range of factors than the established levers of pay and progression.

We’re running our next colleague survey early in 2019, and the results of that, along with much more informed discussion on Brexit and other issues related to employment in our sector, are going to be covered with our employment expert group of members, and at various other events during the year. Let us know if you would like to take part in this debate. 

This entry was posted by Chris on Wed, 19/12/2018 - 14:05