Employment minister Margaret Hodge has set tough targets to speed up the work permit system for firms wanting to recruit skilled staff from overseas.
At a CBI immigration conference last week she pledged that by April 2001, eight out of 10 applications would be cleared in a week.
She acknowledged that business was facing "acute shortages", especially in IT, and that prompt action was needed to plug the skills gap.
Following recent changes the Overseas Labour Service is processing more than 50 per cent of applications a week and 90 per cent every four weeks, she told the conference.
She stated, "These are impressive achievements but we are aiming for further improvements.
"We intend by April 2001 to clear 80 per cent of completed work permit applications."
The service is under increasingly pressure from employers who are turning to foreign workers to plug the skills gap.
A pilot scheme to attract talent to Britain is due to be launched soon. Under the initiative, foreign staff will be able to apply directly for their own work permits.