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Immigration in the spotlight as skills shortages bite

In the wake of the growing skills shortages in the infrastructure sector there is call for visa and immigration rules for non-EU migrants to be relaxed.

Since the start of this year we have seen a number of organisations including the Recruitment and Employment Federation and Construction Industry Council calling for the government to lift the current immigration restrictions for highly skilled workers in the infrastructure sector for those coming to the UK from outside the EU.

As the UK economy continues to show signs of recovery, there are growing concerns over the shortage of white-collar construction professionals including architects, quantity surveyors and engineers in the UK labour market to meet current and future demand.

Furthermore, latest findings from some recruitment and employment organisations show that demand for staff is strongest in engineering, construction and IT. 

Where does the fault lie?

When we look at the bigger picture the problem is twofold – at the moment we are struggling to build our own pipeline of infrastructure experts and immigration rules are blocking potential experts from filling the widening skills gap. This could exacerbate the skills shortage in the sector potentially hindering infrastructure progress. 

Even for those with the freedom of movement as EU member citizens, the issue is quite a hot potato within the industry and labour market.

In recent times we’ve seen hostility towards EU foreign workers from the trades unions who have accused them of taking “British jobs” – furthermore, certain political campaigns look to distort the truth on the skills shortage issue in the UK by propaganda in the run up to the 2015 General Election.

Immigration, whilst it plays a significant part in the solution to deal with the skills shortage, it is only part of the overall solution. 

We need to see a focus on filling the labour pool with a good mix of domestic and foreign infrastructure experts across the sector – striking this balance is going to be a challenge over the next few years. The last thing the infrastructure industry needs is to be used as a political megaphone.

We need to build a domestic pool of experts across the infrastructure sector with expertise from engineering to infrastructure financing. Furthermore, we as a nation need to be flexible and open enough to fill the skills gaps with infrastructure experts from overseas when required. 

This notion is supported by industry leaders such as EU Skills chief executive Neil Robertson who echoes industry and business concerns: “In the utilities sector we have pressing skills shortages. We are increasing our apprenticeship intake by 300 percent but even this will not be enough. We strongly advise government to facilitate the supply of temporary non-EU highly skilled workers to buy us time to fill the skills gap with local talent.”

The restriction on highly skilled migrant workers has further implications, when looking at this from an investment perspective, as restrictive immigration rules are off putting to potential investors and funders looking to invest in UK infrastructure. 

Government caps

The government has capped the number of non-EU skilled migrant workers that can enter the UK to take up employment at 20,700 per year. In order to bring migrant workers to the UK via this route, employers have to comply with strict procedures for advertising the role to settled workers first.

This is to ensure employers can demonstrate that the vacant role cannot be filled by a settled UK worker.

Despite the skills shortages in the infrastructure sector, employers are often deterred from trying to recruit migrant workers in this way due to delays and uncertainty. This poses a conundrum as the domestic infrastructure labour force pipeline for highly skilled workers is not sufficient to meet demand. 

Over the next few years we expect foreign investors from countries such as China in particular, to change the landscape in the UK as their appetite to invest, especially in developed countries, grows. However, the Chinese are concerned about barriers to investment before, during and after a lifecycle of an infrastructure project.

In spite of the chancellor’s announcement around the relaxation of visa requirements for Chinese businessmen and tourists, the Chinese see trade unions, visa restrictions and immigration policies as potential barriers on large projects which will take years to deliver.

They are also concerned that the qualifications of Chinese engineers will not be recognised in the UK. These issues could not only affect Chinese firms during the bidding for projects, but are likely to be an issue later in the operation-stage as well.

However, there are now calls for the government to add a number of roles to the “Shortage Occupation List” to address the skills shortages in the sector.

Where a role appears on the Shortage Occupation List, an employer can dispense with the need to complete the restrictive advertising process that would ordinarily apply before they could appoint a migrant worker to the role, thereby removing the delay and uncertainty over their ability to recruit a non-EU worker for the position.

In light of the growing skills shortages in the sectors, it is hoped that further roles in the technology and engineering professions in particular will be added to the shortage occupation list.

In the meantime, we expect immigration issues to remain high on the political agenda as it looks to secure the continued recovery in the economy.

Amy Brokenshire is an employment Associate at Pinsent Masons

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