Immigration routes into the UK for life sciences talent

Out-Law News | 20 Apr 2021 | 11:45 am |

Louisa Cole tells HRNews about routes to bringing talent into the UK to fill skills gaps in life sciences
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  • Transcript

    How do you attract talent into the life sciences sector? What can you do about the skills gap in this industry? We have been highlighting this issue in recent weeks because this is a sector that is doing relatively well during the pandemic and one of the few industries which is actually growing, largely on account of the ongoing work developing vaccines for Covid-19. As we reported last week, according to Beauhursts data, around 53% of life sciences start-ups are currently at low risk of closure compared with an average of 42% across all sectors, whilst an impressive 26% are potentially positively affected. There have been no permanent closures.

    There are lots of examples of companies expanding. Lifescience Industry magazine reports how Boyds - the leading pharma and biotech product development consultancy - has seen its turnover surge by 25% as demand for its specialist services continues to grow. It is now launching a recruitment drive creating up to 10 new roles to enhance its expertise and expand the business. Many others in the sector are doing the same.

    As we flagged previously, the snag is recruiting the talent to meet demand. The skills gap in the sector is a problem which is highlighted in an article featured in Outlaw. The message is that businesses should be looking to diversify their workforce and recruitment pool and, to that end, it’s argued, there are three key issues to address. First, diversity, so creating an inclusive culture where people feel a sense of belonging and are able to bring their whole selves to work. Secondly, offering the rewards that will attract and retain those people. Third, immigration, so making sure there is a route into the UK for that talent. 

    It is immigration that we will focus on now. There are a variety of routes allowing skilled talent to enter the UK for research projects, studying or work, both sponsored and non-sponsored. So, let’s hear more about both of them. Louisa Cole is part of our immigration team currently helping a number of clients in this sector and she joined me by video link from London to discuss it. I started by asking if Brexit has made life harder:

    Louisa Cole: “Yes so obviously, as the UK recently left the EU, that has presented further challenges to the life sciences sector in sourcing skilled talent because UK businesses that previously were able to freely recruit talent from the EU now require a sponsor licence in order to do that. So that requires them to apply for a licence from the UK government that gives them this sort of blanket permission to recruit EU nationals in the UK to fill skilled positions and there are a couple of different visa categories that can be used for that purpose but it does require this prior licence application and then individual visa applications for each individual they then want to cherry pick, if you like, from the EU to fill that skills shortage and that can take a number of weeks or months to apply for a licence. Then the visa applications themselves can take a further few weeks, and potentially in some instances months on top of that, so it's something that really needs to be thought about in advance and employers really need to think about the costs involved of that as well. So a sponsor licence can cost several thousand pounds when you include legal support for the application of that, and then also the individual visa applications can cost anything between £5,000 and £10,000 on top, but it is a means for UK-based employers to recruit skilled labour into the UK to fill skill shortages they've got, and the great thing about the life sciences sector, and the routes available, is that if you have skilled talent, potentially scientists who are working in some positions within healthcare, research etcetera, they can benefit from fee concessions if the role that they're coming to undertake in the UK is featured on something called the ‘shortage occupation’ list. That means that, obviously, the post is going to be slightly cheaper for UK employers which is a benefit. In addition, those undertaking certain positions as well, which includes scientists and researchers, can benefit from a lower salary threshold, so they'll still meet the requirements of the visa but they are subject to a lower salary threshold and that's going to help employers with recruiting talent at the start of their careers as well into the UK.”

    Joe Glavina: “What if employers already have a sponsor licence? Does that make things easier?”

    Louisa Cole: “Yes, so if employers already have a sponsor licence, the Skilled Worker route, which is one of the most used routes to bring skilled talent to the UK is obviously available to them, as well as the intra-company transfer route, but typically the salary threshold in that route is slightly higher. There are other routes available also to bring skilled talent into the UK for those that don't hold a sponsor licence, but possession of a sponsor licence is a great advantage for employers in bringing skilled labour into the UK.”

    Joe Glavina: “And there’s a non-sponsored route as well, Louisa. Tell me about that.”

    Louisa Cole: “Yes, so the government have introduced a new route that's coming into effect in the summer, so from July, and that is for those that have undertaken a course of study in the UK, at undergraduate level or above, to remain in the UK for a period of two years after that study, or up to three years if they've undertaken a PhD, in order to look for work. It’s a great route for young people at the start of their career and one that the life sciences sector can really take advantage of to look for skilled talent that they don't need to sponsor and to take on individuals to undertake research projects, etcetera, so it’s just a really useful new route. It’s a route that's incredibly similar to something called the ‘post study work’ route, which was in effect about eight years ago, and which the life sciences sector has lobbied for many years to get reinstated by the government. So it's a great new development, it doesn't require sponsorship from employers in the life sciences sector, so the costs are low and it means that those individuals don't need to satisfy things like salary requirements or particular skill requirements because they can work relatively freely in that period of two years before the businesses to make a decision as to where they want to keep that individual and perhaps sponsor them and employ them going forward.”

    The article we mentioned earlier is called ‘Tackling the skills gap in the UK life sciences sector’ covers diversity, incentives and immigration and you can find it on the Outlaw website.