Shortage occupations list must be expanded, says MAC

The independent committee of experts advising the UK government on migration issues has recommended a 14-fold increase in the occupations covered by the Shortage Occupation List (SOL).

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The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said the list of skills from outside the EU eligible for priority visas should be expanded “as soon as possible” to include a range of jobs ranging from web designers to engineers, psychologists to veterinary surgeons.Pointing to “overwhelming evidence of a UK-wide shortage” of talent in a host of fields, the committee said its recommendations would mean the SOL would cover nine per cent of total UK jobs  – compared to the current figure of less than one per cent – with expansion mainly coming in the health and IT sectors.However, to the disappointment of educationists, the MAC report did not recommend adding teachers to the SOL, despite reports earlier this year that the Department for Education would “consider giving international teachers higher priority for UK visas”.

The advantages of the SOL for employers

When a profession is included on the SOL, employers not longer have to advertise it first in the hope of finding indigenous workers; visa fees are reduced; and applicants do not have to meet the salary threshold to gain settled status after five years.Shortage occupations also get priority in the allocation of Type 2 visas, on which there is currently an annual cap of 20,700, although the government looks set to abolish this in 2021.Prof Alan Manning, MAC chairman, said, “The labour market is very different now from the last SOL review in 2013. Unemployment is lower, vacancies higher and free movement no longer providing the ready supply of workers it once did for some employers.

Concerns over future immigration system

"In addition, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the future immigration system. Together these factors lead to a high level of employer concern."That is why we have recommended expanding the SOL to cover a range of occupations in health, information and engineering fields."However, our recommendations are clearly only applicable under the current immigration system, while EU free movement remains. We are recommending a full review of the SOL once there is a clearer picture of what the future immigration system will look like."Employers have been complaining for years that strict rules for would-be immigrants have denied them the skills they badly need from outside the EU. Since the Brexit referendum, the situation has been exacerbated by a reduction in the number of people prepared to come to the UK from the bloc.The digital industry lobby group, techUK, said the MAC recommendations would mean occupations such as engineers, IT business analysts, programmers, and software and web design development professionals would be included in the list.

Tech industry roles difficult to fill

Nimmi Patel, techUK’s policy manager for skills, talent and diversity, said, “TechUK welcomes the MAC’s recognition of the important role the tech industry plays in driving the UK economy and in its acknowledgment of the increasing difficulty in filling such in-demand digital roles.“The limitations of the SOL including its use of static data, which does not reflect real time labour market statistics, comes through in this report. We look forward to seeing the MAC reflect on this point as we develop a future immigration system."Tech workers are some of the most mobile and in-demand professionals internationally, and for the UK to remain a global hub, we must make it easier to attract and retain the best talent.”Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said, “Expanding the Shortage Occupation List will help businesses access the skills they need when they can’t recruit locally. Listing occupations, rather that job titles, simplifies the system and gives welcome flexibility to those hiring for new or emerging roles.“But the ending of free movement will present significant costs and challenges for employers. Businesses continue to raise concerns about proposals for rigid salary thresholds, time restrictions for lower skilled workers, and the extension of the Immigration Skills Charge – all of which will ramp up costs and worsen recruitment difficulties.

Three-quarters of firms unable to find the talent they need

“Our research shows that three-quarters of firms are currently unable to find the talent they need, and vacancies are being left unfilled. Employers know they must invest more in the skills of the future, but people development does not happen overnight, particularly as the UK’s training system is not yet fully fit for purpose. Until then, businesses need an efficient, light-touch and cost-effective system that provides ongoing access to skills from around the world.”Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, commented, “Many businesses will back the MAC’s recommendation to widen the Shortage Occupation List. In the current context of an extremely tight labour market vacancies are often going unfilled, particularly in STEM areas. This is holding firms back from growing even faster, to the benefit of the UK economy.“It is crucial that migration policy takes into account economic realities. Widening the list will help relieve some of the strains businesses face in searching for talent. However, finding the right skill-sets will remain a concern for directors as we move away from freedom of movement with the EU. Our future migration system must be adaptive to firms’ needs, and should steer clear of blunt tools such as salary thresholds.”A Home Office spokesman said the government would respond to the MAC report in due course.Subscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all the latest international assignments and global mobility news.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory