Pandemic alters view on shortage migrant skills

The fallout from this year's Covid-19 pandemic has proved a major influence on recommendations from the UK government's Migration Advisory Committee for changes to the Shortage Occupation Lists (SOL).

Inclusion on the lists means that specific migrant skills will not be subject to conditions, such as the £25,600 minimum wage, when the new immigration system comes into force at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.The MAC is now recommending to ministers that social care workers, whose role has become so important during the pandemic, be added to the SOL along with such manual skills as butchers, bricklayers and welders. Chefs, says the committee, should now be removed from the shortage category as the hospitality industry has suffered a collapse because of the coronavirus outbreak.Additionally, the MAC has recommended additions to separate lists for all of the devolved nations, including fishmongers, bakers and horticultural workers for Northern Ireland, childminders and nursery nurses for Scotland and health professionals for Wales.Prof Brian Bell, who chairs the independent committee, said: "The number of migrants coming to work in the UK has already decreased and we are likely to see an increase in unemployment over the next year as the economic impact of the pandemic continues, so this has been a very challenging time to look at the Shortage Occupation Lists."It has made us more willing to recommend some roles for inclusion simply because it is the sensible thing to do, but we have been clear that migration is not always the solution.
"We remain particularly concerned about the social care sector, which is so central to the frontline response to this health pandemic, as it will struggle to recruit the necessary staff if wages do not increase as a matter of urgency."Andrew Osborne, head of immigration and partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, said that a fundamental point was that the main purpose of the SOL would be different under the new immigration system."Instead of enabling employers to hire people faster, it will allow to them to be paid less. This is a really curious change. Instead of skilled immigration pushing up the salaries of local workers at the higher income range, salary growth in shortage roles may be suppressed in an effort to recognise that industry and societal value change will take more time to affect remuneration than the country can afford," he said. Mr Osborne said that the MAC had "very sensibly" changed its approach to reviewing the lists because of labour market shock caused by the pandemic."In the wake of a severe downturn in trade across most industry sectors, there are only two job titles that have been ‘upgraded’ to become eligible for sponsorship under the Skilled Worker route – vent chick sexers and deckhands on large fishing vessels of nine metres and above. Deckhands have been assessed as being in shortage," he pointed out.  “Around 70 new occupations, or job titles within occupations, have been recommended for inclusion, representing 14 per cent of total employment or 21 per cent of employment at RQF level 3 (A-level equivalent under the Regulated Qualifications Framework) or higher. This is a significant expansion from the scope of the current lists, which cover around nine per cent of total employment."Mr Osborne said the MAC had emphasised that the end of freedom of movement from the EU would place significant pressure on the social care sector if increased funding for higher wages was not forthcoming."It has therefore recommended recognising senior care workers, nursing assistants and a range of other health occupations as being in shortage. Unfortunately, this means that there will be potential compliance pitfalls for employers where the Home Office does not consider a particular migrant’s duties and responsibilities to meet the definition of being a ‘senior’ carer."A government spokesman said ministers would be considering the MAC recommendations and would respond in due course.

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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