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Call for pragmatism to address UK skills shortage makes sense | Nils Pratley

The most interesting intervention in the hot debate over skills shortages came last week from Simon Wolfson, chief executive of Next, who, as a pro-Brexit businessman, might be expected to have a sliver of sympathy for the government’s apparent view that companies should stop whinging and train British workers to address strains in supply chains.

In fact, Wolfson’s sympathy was less than zero. “It strikes me as being insane that, despite the fact that everyone knows that we desperately need drivers, the Home Office is still preventing people coming to this country to work as drivers,” he said.

In his view, the supply shortfalls aren’t primarily created by Brexit, but are more to do with the squeeze from the pandemic. You can agree with that analysis or not, but it’s hard to quibble with his key point about the need for pragmatism here and now. “There’s an enormous difference between having control over your immigration system, which I think we should have, and running that system well, which I’m not sure that we are,” he argued.

One could make the counter-argument that big business, including Next, is reaping what it sowed in undervaluing lorry drivers. And, up to a point, one can agree: enforced pay rises for a category of workers that has been systemically underpaid is a welcome development.

But one also has to untangle the short-term and long-term factors. The CBI’s weekend warning about hotels limiting the number of bookable rooms, and restaurants limiting covers, rings true. Shortages are plainly affecting capacity now, which potentially slows the recovery and has knock-on effects on other workers.

The employer body argued that the backlog could take two years to clear. That deserves to be taken seriously. Higher wages, and a faster training and approval system for HGV drivers, are clearly part of the answer, but cannot be viewed as as instant solutions. Nor is reclassifying HGV drivers as visa-worthy skilled workers a cure-call since European countries are also experiencing their own shortages. But all efforts help a bit.

It seems perverse – or self-defeating, as the CBI put it – to refuse an obvious temporary and targeted measure. The government gives the impression it prefers ideologically purity, as it might see it, over common sense.

Petershill: a small advance too late?

First, it was Bridgepoint, the private equity firm with over-remunerated non-executives. Now Petershill Partners, an investment company that buys stakes in private equity and hedge fund managers, is going public, again in London, with a likely valuation of $5bn-plus.

Petershill is a Goldman Sachs production – its current shareholders are clients of the Wall Street firm’s asset management division – and it owns stakes in 19 so-called “alternative” managers. It makes the bulk of its money via its slice of the managers’ regular fees and also gets its cut of any “carried interest”, the bonus for outperformance. The operation, which started in London 14 years ago (the name comes from a Goldman’s building near St Paul’s) and will continue to rely on Goldman’s services and contacts, is looking to raise $750m (£542m) to add more stakes in managers.

The positive way to view this development is see it as a small advance for the democratisation of finance. We have, after all, grumbled often enough about how entry to the “alternatives” universe is is generally restricted to funds and the ultra-wealthy.

It is hard though, to escape the sense that the doors are opened just when the price of everything looks expensive. Bridgepoint’s shares have risen 40% since float in July, and Petershill will probably be in demand too. But one wonders if the boom-time party is growing old.

Crypto investment: kick out the scams

Charles Randell, chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority, is correct that writing a full regulatory rule-book to police the wild world of crypto investment will take “a great deal of careful thought”. If the aim is to protect the young and naive, almost the worst outcome would be a half-baked set-up that creates the misleading impression that punters are protected. It needs saying time and again: if you lose your shirt gambling on digital tokens, don’t expect a bailout.

But one part of this landscape is uncomplicated: social media companies need to weed out online financial scams. The FCA has had some success in shaming Google into limited action over the last two years. It is depressing, though, that Randell still felt the need on Monday to name others that should “do the right thing”. Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and TikTok have no excuse.



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