Why do so many jobs go to foreign-born workers?

When work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggested that British employers should hire British workers rather than relying on foreign labour, he was attacked by business leaders.

And rightly so. It’s not as though our employers are hiring immigrants because they want to create a trendy cosmopolitan workplace, or because they hold some unfounded prejudice against their fellow Brits. The plain fact is that British employers are hiring foreign workers because they think they are going to do a better job.

In that context, expecting British businesses to put their own interests aside and think of the ‘greater societal good’ – as some have suggested – is nothing short of self-destructive. If British companies were not free to hire the best job applicants – regardless of where they come from – they wouldn’t be able to compete in the global market; businesses would decline, jobs would be lost, and the economy would suffer.

But even if Iain Duncan Smith was misguided in his remarks, he has done us all a great service by highlighting an enormous problem that exists in Britain today: too many people are, for one reason or another, just not suitable for the jobs that are available in our economy.

Recent figures underline the issue: as the Daily Mail revealed earlier this week, three out of every four jobs created in the UK during the twelve months to March 2011 went to foreign-born workers. The number of foreign-born men and women in work soared by 334,000 to more than 4million, while the number of British-born people in employment rose by only 77,000.

I wish I could say I was surprised. But the truth is that this has been going on for years. It’s just that our political elite – terrified as they are of any honest discussion of the pros and cons of immigration – have preferred to ignore it.

Yet the statistics speak for themselves. It is true that somewhere in the region of 2.5million jobs were created between 1997 and 2010. But that number is flattered by the phenomenon of pension-age people returning to work. If you only look at employment figures for those aged 16-64, the figure is closer to 1.8million. And as the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson has pointed out, 99 percent of that increase is explained by a rise in foreign-born workers.

It’s worth spelling this out: employment of foreign-born workers aged 16-64 rose by 1,823,000 between 1997 and 2010; employment of British-born workers rose by just 23,000. Houston, we have a problem.

But why are things the way they are? And what can we do to change them? The first step, as they always, is admitting we have a problem. The second step is to avoid falling into the trap of ‘protecting’ British labour from foreign competition. That wouldn’t be solving the problem, it would just be burying our heads in the sand and pretending the problem wasn’t there. The third step is identifying the political and cultural failures that are causing the problem, and doing our best to fix them. This is the tricky bit.

The primary suspect in the sad decline of the British-born worker is our education system. As David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, put it: “After 11 years of formal education, employers say they get kids coming to them who can’t write, who can’t communicate, and who don’t have that work ethic.”

A recent survey conducted by the Confederation of British Industry came to the same conclusion. Over 40 percent of employers were unhappy with youngsters’ use of English. 35 percent were unsatisfied with their numeracy skills. 69 percent complained about a lack of business or customer awareness, and 55 percent bemoaned poor ‘self-management’ skills. Almost half of the employers surveyed said they had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.

The international education league tables reveal a marked downward trend: according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Britain went from being ranked 7th in reading in 2000 to being ranked 25th in 2010. In maths, Britain fell from 8th to 28th. In science, we fell from 4th to 16th.

So there’s no doubt that British education needs to get better if our young people are going to be able to compete with job applicants from overseas. Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’ agenda is a good start, but for it to work we need many more new schools to be set up – allowing profit-making chains into the market, as in Sweden, would help. We must also do more to free teachers from state-imposed micromanagement – we have to let them teach the child in front of them, rather than spend all their time jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

But for all that, I do not believe that education alone is the answer to this problem. For too many out-of-work Britons seem to be caught in the grip of a wider malaise – much of it down to the seemingly unstoppable growth of the welfare state. We now find ourselves in the absurd situation where the unskilled are frequently better off sitting at home getting benefits than they are getting out and finding a job.

I vividly recall a meeting I had with a successful entrepreneur a few months ago, in which he told me about a man who had worked in his factory for years – and been an excellent worker – until he realized he’d be better off on the dole. Similarly, my grandmother – who started work aged 14 and still runs her own business 66 years later – is full of stories about people sent to her by Jobcentre Plus who have no real interest in finding work. Some even come out and say so. They’re just ticking the boxes so that they can keep claiming their Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Once again, however, it seems to me that there is a bigger issue here – one which stems to some extent from the failings of welfare and education, but runs much deeper than either of them. And that’s our everyone’s-a-winner, entitlement culture. Too many people think that a good life is owed to them, whether they are prepared to work for it or not. But this idea – of individuals as passive recipients – isn’t just economically damaging. It is also fundamentally corrosive to people’s chances of a fulfilling existence. Real, lasting satisfaction only comes through aspiration, through striving, through deciding what you want from life and doing your best to pursue it. It isn’t about money, but it is about making something of yourself.

It’s the people who get this that employers really want working for them. And the thing about immigrants is that they’ve already made sacrifices – moving thousands of miles from home, leaving their friends and family behind, mastering a foreign language – in pursuit of a better life. Almost by definition, they tend to be dynamic, ambitious, hard-working people, and employers know it. That’s what job seeking Britons are competing with. How many of them are up to it?

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