Much has already been said about Brexit and the risk of exacerbating skills shortages in key UK sectors if EU nationals lose their right to continue working in the UK. However, most discussions on this topic assume that this will be a post-Brexit issue or, potentially, a non-issue if the UK agrees to protect some or all current EU workers' rights to stay. Both are dangerous assumptions.

Human nature being what it is, it wouldn't be a surprise to see at-risk EU nationals repatriating or moving to other countries before the government determines their fate. Indeed, there may be a first mover advantage in doing so - to secure the best jobs in the best (non-UK) places - which will reward those that leave sooner rather than later.

According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics today, there are 2.24 million EU nationals working in the UK.  To take one sector as an example, there are almost 200,000 EU workers in the construction sector at risk, about 8% of the UK's construction workforce, according to RICS figures revealed today. An exodus of EU construction workers has the potential to bring the UK’s £500 billion infrastructure pipeline to a standstill.  

Skills shortages challenge businesses and cause financial distress by inflating the cost of labour and constraining output.  How long will EU nationals stick around?  Are UK businesses prepared if they depart sooner than expected?