UK engineering facing immigration rules 'threat'

Fears are growing of problems for the engineering industry from the ‘multitude of threats’ posed by UK government proposals for a post-Brexit immigration system, according to a new assessment.

Industrial workers
Alice Williams, a solicitor specialising in employment and immigration law at Capital Law, says that if Brexit and proposals in December's Immigration White Paper were to be fully enacted, the end of free movement would be a major hindrance for employers struggling to fill vacancies in the engineering industry, because they could not pool ‘low-skilled’ labour from abroad.

Shortage of engineers

"Furthermore," she writes on the Chemical Engineer website, "it is concerning that even without the restrictions that Brexit will bring, engineering roles already account for over 50 per cent of the jobs 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 can successfully fulfil projects that are already in development, and has not removed the restrictions that make it immensely difficult for companies to hire talent from abroad."Ms Williams says the ‘skills-based’ approach in the white paper is seen by many engineering leaders as a serious threat to the sector because it will exacerbate the shortage gaps in the engineering industry.

A 22,000 shortfall of graduates

"This is even more acutely concerning when looking at the figures for engineering employment," she says. "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."

Salary threshold of £30,000 needed to obtain a UK work visa

She says that, post-Brexit, overseas engineers attracted to the UK 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 ($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."Ms Williams says that, while the official Job Shortage List states there is a shortage of chemical engineers in the production and process engineers’ category, it also notes that average entry level positions earn £22,900. Those in the experienced chemical engineer category, she adds, 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.

Fewer applicants in the chemical engineering sector

"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."Ms Williams points out that, currently, to apply for a Tier 2 work visa, applicants will need to meet the 70-point requirement by having: 
  • 50 points for a job offer and a Certificate of Sponsorship from the company looking to employ you
  • 10 points for proof of English language ability
  • 10 points for adequate maintenance funds – the amount of maintenance required changes if you are applying with dependants.
"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’," Ms Williams says.

New legislation will have a negative impact on industry

"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."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