What does the latest Immigration White Paper mean for the engineering industry?
WHILST the recent events surrounding Brexit have cast the UK into further uncertainty as to what will happen in the coming months, there is increasing concern that there is no easy outcome for the engineering industry. Assuming that Brexit still goes ahead, the latest White Paper has posed a multitude of threats to large sections of UK industry – including the chemical engineering sector.
If Brexit was to be fully enacted, workers looking to move in and out of the UK would find the end of free movement to be a major hindrance, whilst employers would struggle to fill vacancies in the engineering industry without the opportunity to pool ‘low-skilled’ labour from abroad.
Furthermore, it is concerning that even without the restrictions that Brexit will bring, engineering roles already account for over 50% of the jobs that are on the UK's Shortage Occupation List. These include chemical engineers, process engineers and process safety engineers, meaning the Government has already acknowledged that the UK needs more engineers in order that it they can successfully fulfill projects that are already in development, and has not removed the restrictions that make it immensely difficult for companies to hire talent from abroad.
The ‘skills-based’ approach put forth in the Government White Paper that will be substituted into the visa system is seen by many engineering leaders as a serious threat to the sector. This is due to shortage gaps within the engineering industry, including the process and chemical engineering sectors, which many fear will be exacerbated by this approach. This is even more acutely concerning when looking at the figures for engineering employment. For instance, a 2018 report that EngineeringUK carried out identified that the UK faces a potential shortfall of 22,000 graduate-level engineers that are needed to enter the workforce every year. In addition, there are approximately 124,000 roles which require core engineering skills – and this in turn presents the possibility of an additional shortage of 59,000 workers. In accumulation, EngineeringUK estimates that the annual shortages are between 83,000 and 110,000 potential workers.
In the post-Brexit climate, any more European chemical and process engineers attracted to the UK job market will have no choice but to go down the Tier 2 Visa route. However, in order to qualify for this, potential employers will need to fill a Sponsor Licence application just to hire individuals while the employee must earn a minimum of £30,000 (US$38,000) in order to successfully receive a UK work visa. Although the White Paper suggests this threshold could be relaxed, it is still very much intact, and no official arrangements have been made which suggest discussions or proposals to make any changes to it have taken place. The severe issue that this presents for chemical engineers is clear when reading the Government’s official Job Shortage List. Whilst it is stated that the UK is experiencing a shortage of chemical engineers under the production and process engineers category, it also notes that average entry level positions earn £22,900 while those in the experienced chemical engineer category would only just reach the criteria of earning £30,000. The Government has been keen to highlight that, in light of the significant shortage of all engineers, the 20,700-annual cap of Tier 2 work visas will be removed. This means that engineers will no longer be competing for a visa against one another and actually all of UK industries that require their workers to have a Tier 2 visa which is fortunate for the sector, since fears mounted that visas would be issued, by default, to the highest earners.
However, there will still be fewer potential applicants in the chemical and wider engineering sector removal due to the Tier 2 requirements. More than ever, those that are eligible need to be made aware of the criteria and what a successful application would allow them to do. Currently, to apply for a Tier 2 work visa, you will need to meet the 70-point requirement by having:
Attempting to quell fears about the impact that all this new legislation will have on the running of businesses, the Government has claimed in this most recent White Paper that the process of attaining the necessary sponsor licences will be ‘streamlined,’ and that the requirements will be ‘light touch.’ However, realistically these changes can only really have a negative impact on the industry. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has described the process as costly and also noted that it will undoubtedly hit smaller engineering firms much harder than larger corporations who will be more able to employ specific administrators for the task. Industry-wide experts have strongly criticised the potential for this process to carry on existing post-Brexit and if getting a Sponsor Licence proves to be too difficult and costly for some of these businesses, it seems likely that they may even be inclined to hire only UK staff – something that would without a doubt cause major disruption to an industry that relies as much on ‘low-skilled’ foreign workers as it does on more highly qualified talent.
With the deadline for a decision fast approaching, an administrative nightmare looks likely to hit the engineering sector if legislation is not changed, and all subsections of the industry look likely to find huge holes in their workforce with this emphasis on a ‘skills-based’ approach. The importance of workers sourced from abroad must not be underestimated, and this must be considered by businesses and employers as Britain moves into a post-Brexit climate.