Brexit: What’s Next for Engineers Now That the UK Has Left the EU

February 28, 2020 by Lianne Frith

After a long, uncertain wait, on January 31st, the UK has finally left the EU.

However, there is still much to be decided and the following 11-month transition period will no doubt have a significant impact on electrical engineers on all sides of the water. The UK is now tasked with negotiating trade deals with the EU as well as non-EU countries, and these deals will impact every industry.

The question is, will the transition period be enough to ensure regulatory alignment, protect frictionless trade and ensure our engineering organizations have the access they need to skilled labor?


What Does Brexit Mean for the EE Industry?

Back in 2016, Tech London Advocates reported that 90% of tech workers in London supported remaining in the EU. However, since then, the UK tech industry has experienced significant growth, despite the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

In fact, in 2019, the UK tech sector received a record investment of £10.1 billion, which goes against claims that international confidence in the UK’s technology status is dwindling.

The UK has outperformed every other EU country concerning its growth in the number of tech companies. In 2019, the UK’s performance was second only to the US and China in terms of total venture capital funding.

Interestingly, in comparison to the likes of Germany and France, the UK had the widest overall mix of foreign and domestic investors. 


Two men shaking hands in front of EU flags, depicting the importance of new trade agreements for the UK’s engineering industry.

Two men shaking hands in front of EU flags, depicting the importance of new trade agreements for the UK’s engineering industry

Brexit also has some significant potential consequences for the trade of engineering services, with the potential for the UK to negotiate new Free Trade Agreements. While this may create new opportunities, the concerns are that the UK won’t be able to negotiate a deal on services that is as good as what it currently has.

During the transition period, there is a strong chance that UK tech companies will rush into trade agreements with solution suppliers. Unfortunately, this could lead to mistakes with an increased risk surrounding security, identity and access management. 


The Potential Ramifications of Brexit for Engineers

There are countless potential ramifications of Brexit for engineers. However, the key issues being discussed at this time include standards, recognition, research, and development investment and the retention and attraction of engineering talent:


Engineering Standards

Britain needs to keep a close relationship with the European standard agencies if it is to retain the ability to change or influence them. According to the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will still be able to participate during the transition period, but will then lose its voting rights as of 2021.

Now is time for the UK and the EU to explore cooperation to reduce regulatory barriers. By creating continued participation and cooperation, the UK could reduce the need for duplication, avoid the need to establish new UK bodies and ensure access to EU expertise and resources. Moreover, with a collaborative approach, there is more of an opportunity to influence both European and global standards. 


Professional Registration

Fortunately, the European Federation of National Engineering Associations (FEANI), which administers the European Engineer qualification existed before the formation of the EU. So, the EUR ING title, which is widely recognized across Europe and internationally, should remain unaffected as FEANI is a European organization, not an EU organization. 


Research and Development

Currently, the UK’s spending on research and development, while significant, is restricted by EU regulations. With its leave from the EU, research and development tax credits will no longer be limited by the state cap, with the potential for higher value handouts and less stringent qualification criteria. The investment in innovation, aimed to rise to 2.4% GDP by 2027, would enable the UK to demonstrate that the engineering industry can thrive in its new environment. 


Profile of UK engineering sector and workforce.
A profile of the UK engineering sector and engineering workforce. Figures used courtesy of Royal Academy of Engineering


Will the UK Retain and Attract Engineering Talent?

According to reports, 16 percent of tech professionals are planning to seek employment outside of the UK as a direct result of Brexit. This could have a substantial impact on the engineering industry, with 18% of the engineering and construction workforce claiming they may leave to advance their careers.

The truth of the matter is that the UK engineering sector can’t afford to lose much-needed talent. This leaves employers with the challenge of finding creative ways to incentivize their employees to stay, and they’re going to need to get a move on to do so before the end of the transition period.

Likewise, at the end of the transition period, as freedom of movement will likely come to an end, EU residents may be deterred from coming to the UK due to visa requirements, with other tech hubs gaining a greater pull. 


The Addition of the Global Talent Visa 

To counteract the concerns over visa requirements restricting the UK from attracting the necessary engineering talent, the UK government launched the global talent visa. It aims to be more flexible than the existing Tier 1 Exceptional Talent and Exceptional Promise visa, which are difficult to come by. The new visa is open to highly talented foreign nationals working in specialist fields such as science, research and mathematics. 

Arguments for the new visa system claim that it is superior as there is no limit on the number of applicants, applicants aren’t required to be employed in the UK before entry and applications will be processed by UK Research and Innovation instead of the Home Office. With researchers and engineering professionals being in the driving seat to be able to fast-track visas, the new scheme sends out a positive message of the UK’s commitment to welcoming overseas talent. 

However, with the requirements for endorsement from recognized UK bodies, such as The Royal Academy of Engineering and an imposed minimum salary of £30,000, there is criticism that the new scheme will fail due to too few people qualifying.

What’s more, while the scheme will welcome some, it comes alongside an end to the Erasmus scheme which has welcomed engineers from Africa and Asia over recent years. So, while the scheme may help attract highly talented individuals, there is a serious chance that the UK will suffer a significant skill shortage.


Statistics for the engineering sector.

2018 statistics related to the UK engineering sector sourced from a recommendation report by Engineering UK. Images sourced from Engineering UK


The Future of the UK’s Engineering Industry

However you look upon it, Brexit is complicated, and the future is still far from certain for the UK’s engineering industry. The country needs to retain investment, encourage innovation and attract talent. It needs to bring together the best people across Europe and further afield—and that means not only hiring top talent but welcoming skilled research assistants and graduates.

Without free movement of people and free trade, there is a risk that businesses may seek ventures elsewhere and even that British companies may launch their innovative projects overseas where collaboration exists without regulatory obstacles.

However, on the flip side, the UK has a strong track record in the tech and innovation sector; if tax incentives, investment and funding in research and development continue to be high on the agenda, it may be able to thrive.

What’s more, even during the uncertainty over the last few years, the country has enjoyed huge success in attracting venture capital investment, especially in fintech, AI, deep tech and clean energy. Perhaps focusing on these new technologies and working to advance the UK into the fourth industrial revolution will help the UK stay at the top of the pack amidst the political uncertainty.