The government is to allow more foreign workers into the UK to help address acute labour shortages, starting with the construction industry. As the FT reports, bricklayers, roofers, carpenters, plasterers and construction workers will, from this summer, be added to the Shortage Occupation List. It follows the government’s acceptance of recommendations in an interim report published last week by the Migration Advisory Committee which reviewed both hospitality and construction sector. Will the changes make a difference? We’ll consider that.
The shortage occupation list allows employers to bring in key staff on a lower salary threshold of £20,480, compared with the current “skilled worker” salary threshold of £25,600, or at 80% of the going rate for the occupation, whichever is higher. There are also reduced visa fees. Current jobs on the list include care workers, vets, civil engineers and graphic designers, but the hospitality sector, which has similar problems to construction in many ways, is not expected to be added to the list at this stage. Instead, the Migration Advisory Committee, will begin a broader review of the shortage list and will issue its final report in the autumn. Construction, meanwhile, has been given preferential treatment ahead of time.
So, how will it play out and how helpful is this development for the construction sector? Earlier I spoke to immigration specialist Shara Pledger who has some reservations:
Shara Pledger: “It's very encouraging that the government has recognised that a sector as large and as important as construction is facing these difficulties and that they are open to the idea of making changes to try and support that industry to get out of the skills gap that they have. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that the change that's been made in terms of the addition of certain roles to the shortage occupation list will have a hugely practical impact. The shortage occupation list has really changed in terms of its level of importance in recent years. Pre-Brexit, when we used to have the old, sponsored immigration system, that was very heavily restricted in numbers and being included on the shortage occupation was very important. It allowed you to basically leapfrog other applicants that were trying to get their sponsored visas and so it really did give people an edge in terms of being able to sponsor somebody in the UK, or not. Now we don't have that cap on numbers, the shortage occupation list is really less important. It does have an impact, it basically lowers the amount of money that people need to be paid to be sponsored and it can also reduce the amount of money that they themselves will pay to get their visa in place, but what it doesn't do is take a role that was previously not suitable for sponsorship and automatically make it suitable for sponsorship, unless the Home Office decide to make that step. Now, they have done that before - they did it just last year in the social care sector, which is when they took care workers that were below the grade of senior care workers, added them to the shortage occupation list, and that then allowed employers in the UK to be able to now recruit people within that role where otherwise they wouldn't have been able to do so because the Home Office viewed the role as being too low skilled for the purpose of sponsorship. These routes and roles that are being cited in terms of the construction sector don't have that same profile, they are already classed as being suitable for sponsorship. So what we don't have here with the construction trade are new roles that are suddenly being taken and put into the sponsorship system and saying to employers, you couldn't sponsor these people before and now you can. Employers have always been able to sponsor these people but, for whatever reason, it isn't really workable for them and that normally isn't because the individual cost of one worker is the problem, it is because the overall cost of the number of people that are needed within this sector is simply prohibitive. So, obviously reducing that cost by adding them to the shortage occupation list is helpful, but will it be enough is the question. Will it really be what's needed in order to put that injection of talent and skill back into the construction sector because their vacancies are huge in number and it's questionable whether or not this step is enough?”
Joe Glavina: “But there some benefits Shara – the lower visa cost for example?”
Shara Pledger: “Yes, there are definitely benefits. Application costs for individuals will be slightly lower, which is obviously hugely helpful particularly if an employer is looking at factoring those into their overall costs for the worker. What's also helpful is that the amount that can be paid to those individual employees will be lowered. Now, it's not an absolutely huge decrease in the sense that it doesn't sort of halve what they need to be paid, or take it down to minimum wage, for example, but it's not far off, actually. So it will be a potentially significant reduction in the amount that needs to be paid to each individual worker, whether it's actually then reflective of what the market rate is for those people in the UK is another question of course.”
On the subject of immigration, the other news is that the Home Office has issued new guidance to help employers conduct right to work checks lawfully and so prevent the risk of incurring a civil penalty. Last week immigration specialist Alex Wright talked to this programme about the changes. That’s ‘New guidance for employers on using IDSPs for right to work checks’ and it’s available for viewing now from the Outlaw website.