By Elisabeth O'Leary
EDINBURGH, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Scottish businesses said on Monday that Britain's impending exit from the European Union was already making it hard to fill gaps in their workforces, citing a skills shortage, visa problems and a negative, uncertain image of the United Kingdom abroad.
In evidence given to a UK parliamentary committee, representatives of the food and drink, tourism, health and social care sectors pointed to difficulties recruiting and training staff to cope with demand for their services, particularly in Scotland's many rural communities.
They also expressed worries about the bureaucracy of a future migration system, which they said would hamper both small businesses and applicants. The decline in the pound against the euro was another factor as it diminished the value of earnings workers could send back to their families abroad.
"Our profound fear is that now we are already in the process of that (workforce) tap being turned off, where is that workforce going to come from?" said Dr Donald Macaskill, the chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents a sector supporting around 100,000 care-home care-at-home jobs.
He said six to eight percent of his nurses at care homes were from the European Economic Area.
As Britain approaches the second phase of Brexit negotiations, centring on trade, many companies have asked for clarity on what status EU workers living in the UK will have during an expected transition phase of two years.
Many Britons who voted for Brexit did so because they were unhappy about the flow of migrants into Britain, and one of the key issues for them is stopping the unlimited flow of EU citizens into Britain as a full EU member.
For business, however, recruiting staff is becoming more difficult.
"For us, Brexit isn't something that we are waiting to happen, it's something that is already starting ... we are hearing anecdotally in the last year that more and more individuals are working out that it is more profitable for them to work back in their own country," Macaskill said.
Most of those asked seemed not to agree, however, that Scotland's needs were unique, as the pro-independence Scottish government has argued. Instead, they said industries needed bespoke arrangements and a simple and flexible immigration system.
Shirley Rogers, direct of health workforce at the Scottish health service, said 5 to 6 percent of doctors, 4 percent of nurses in training and 2 percent of dentists in Scotland were from the EU.
She pointed out a 96 percent drop in the number of EU citizens recruited by the UK Royal College of Nursing this year, adding that where nurses train strongly influences where they then decide to work.
"It's about how welcome and attractive we are in a world where (professionals) can go to America, Canada, Australia or anywhere else," she said. "My anxiety is around the messaging that we are sending to people."
Data last month showed net migration to Britain fell by the largest amount on record in the 12 months after the Brexit vote .
"It is about flexibility and ... the ability to grow, and food and drink in Scotland has the ambition to grow turnover to 30 billion pounds by 2030 and we need people to do the work. Without people to fill 27,000 jobs in next 10 years, then we are going to struggle to meet that ambitious target," David Thomson, the chief executive of Food and Drink Federation Scotland, told the committee.
The food and drink sector employs 45,000 people in Scotland and is targetting turnover of 16.5 billion pounds this year. (Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary, editing by Larry King)
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