Skills shortages across key sectors will be exacerbated by the government’s proposed immigration cap, leaving organisations struggling to cope, industry figures have warned.
The government intends to push ahead with its annual cap on non-EU migrants despite official figures last week that revealed net immigration during the recession fell by 11% – from 160,000 in 2008, to 142,000 in 2009. Applications for skilled and highly-skilled migrant visas also dropped by 15%.
The Home Office said details of the policy are “yet to be fleshed out”, but the Conservatives previously claimed the cap would reduce annual migration to “tens of thousands a year, instead of hundreds of thousands a year”.
Tim Finch, head of migration at the Institute of Public Policy Research, said trying to cap immigration at artificially low levels would be counterproductive. “It would restrict employers’ ability to bring in highly-skilled workers and workers in shortage occupations, which would only harm both public services, like the NHS, and the economic recovery,” he added.
“Placing a cap on the number of migrants will inevitably mean a move away from selecting on the basis of the quality of the candidate and towards a situation where the timing of the application becomes critical. This will leave employers in the potentially difficult situation of needing to plan their foreign worker requirements well in advance to avoid losing out on critical hires by the application of the cap.”
Josie Taylor, employment associate at law firm Pinsent Masons
Matt Baker, head of recruitment at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said hospitals only sought non-EU staff when skills were unavailable in the UK or EU, so a cap could further restrict access to those skills. “There’s definitely a concern that we could struggle to find skills under Tier 2 [skilled migrants] if it’s capped,” he said. “We could be stuck with vacant posts. We could struggle to provide certain services.”
Baker said positions most likely to be affected were specialist roles such as staff nurses, pharmacy technicians, and consultants. The NHS has already been forced to recruit junior doctors from India to fill vacancies in hospitals, starting this August.
The care sector could also be hit by the cap, with hard-to-fill nursing positions becoming more expensive to fill or being left vacant, according to Jo Brown, HR manager at Order of St Johns Care Trust. “It’s quite difficult to attract nurses so we often have to go overseas,” she said. “We have minimum staffing levels in care homes, and if we don’t have the staff, we would have to look to agencies, which are more expensive.”
She called on the government to confirm the level of the cap so employers could plan their workforces.
Mandy Thorn, vice-chair of the National Care Association, agreed skills shortages in the sector “will be exacerbated by the cap”, warning that “there could be vacancies left unfilled” and “services will be limited”.
Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said ethnic restaurants could be forced to close as they would struggle to hire non-EU chefs and senior managers, who are already in short supply, adding that employers could be “tempted” to source staff through illegal routes to fill gaps.
Meanwhile, the Institution of Civil Engineers warned infrastructure projects could be hit by the cap, suggesting it was “naïve” to assume the UK had the skills to deliver the development of a low carbon economy, nuclear power plants and offshore wind schemes.