There has been a 9% fall in the number of skilled workers from overseas applying to enter the UK’s private sector.
Figures from the Home Office show that 4,300 fewer applications for Tier 2 skilled worker visas were made by non-EU workers seeking to join the UK’s private sector in 2018-19 than three years previously.
In 2015-16, the year before the Brexit referendum, there were 48,600 such applications. This had fallen to 44,300 in 2018-19 (the figure for 2017-18 was 44,201).
New immigration system
Business and accounting consultancy BDO has claimed that the fall in non-EU applications points to a risk of a significant skills shortage in years to come because skilled worker migration from the EU is likely to fall further.
BDO claimed that Brexit was not the only factor directly at work: there were indirect consequences of the June 2016 vote too such as the weaker pound leading to more skilled workers being attracted by competing economies.
The figures gleaned by BDO suggested that the technology sector has been most affected, with a 17% decline in applications from 23,700 in 2015-16 to 19,700 in 2018-19.
Ease of access to IT specialists from overseas has widely been seen as a key driver of grown in the UK’s fintech industry, allowing London to take a leading position in the sector, BDO claimed. Manufacturing also saw a significant fall in applications from 2,610 to 2,258, a 14% downturn, at a time when 81% of manufacturers were reporting difficulties in finding staff, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.
Stuart Lisle, senior tax partner at BDO, said: “There is already a skills shortage in several key industries like technology and manufacturing. It is now vitally important that British businesses are still able to bring in talented workers from overseas where necessary, once our exit from the EU is completed.
“We want to see the government prioritise the creation of a worker visa system that attracts the best talent with economically relevant skills, that prioritises the needs of UK businesses.”
He added that being able to out-compete rival economies for talent was one of the reasons the UK had become a global fintech hub over the past decade. “If we want to take a similar position in areas like AI, automated vehicles or advanced manufacturing, it’s vital that the government makes sure the UK retains its ability to attract the world’s best after the EU transition period ends.”
Lisle also called for more of an active role for business in working with the education sector to engage with students and “unlock the talent we have inside the country to delver sustainable economic success”.
For Jamie Kerr, partner at Burness Paull and a specialist in immigration law, the reasons behind the fall in applications were quite clear. He told Personnel Today: “These numbers show that the uncertainty associated with the Brexit process is negatively impacting on the attractiveness of the UK as a place to work. The ongoing focus on a new immigration system, without indicating what the new system might look like, is understandably offputting to the skilled workers and talent that UK business so desperately needs.”
BDO suggested three policy changes the government should consider to help businesses attract the talent they need: extending childcare support for working parents of children aged one to four; improving the UK’s apprenticeship system to focus on quality of outcomes, not just volume; and reinstating the two-year post-study work visa for foreign graduates in Stem subjects at UK universities – which the government has signalled it will implement.