A graphic showing crowds of engineers

Immigration: the problem for engineering

Few topics have been as hotly debated in the run up to the UK General Election as immigration. Is the country threatened by an influx of lazy scroungers, or are foreign workers the solution to skills shortages?

“If you want to work in the space sector, as I always did, you would most likely have to go to western Europe, or perhaps even to the USA,” says 30-year old Athenian Stavros, a graduate from Greece’s most prestigious higher-education institution, the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the National Technical University of Athens.

Stavros, who is now a spacecraft controller at London-based satellite operator Inmarsat, finished his five-year telecommunications engineering degree in the same year, unfortunately, that the Greek debt crisis exploded. Completing his mandatory 12-month military service a year later, Stavros subsequently found himself in a series of dead-end jobs for which he felt overqualified.

Unemployment levels in the country were through the roof and continuing to rise, especially among the young. Despite engineering being one of the least affected professional careers, jobs with good career prospects were hard to come by. For Stavros, the decision to leave behind the land of his ancestors became increasingly obvious.

“I decided to do another, space-related, Master’s degree abroad and then worked for a short time in Germany,” he says. “Eventually an offer came from London.”

Engineers wanted

Stavros is one of approximately 1,500,000 European Union labour migrants working in the UK, making up around 5 per cent of the labour force, according to data from the 2014 Eurostat Labour Mobility Survey. He is also one of the foreign engineers plugging the hotly debated UK engineering skills gap, numbers for which are unavailable, but for which the IET estimates around 87,000 new engineers are required every year.

Take a brief look at the UK’s National Shortage Occupation List. Out of the 32 positions registered in the document that provides guidance for companies looking to recruit non-European personnel, 15 are engineering and technology-related professions including mechanical engineers, electrical and electronics engineers, software developers and nuclear experts.

“We survey recruiters on a monthly basis to assess trends in demand and candidate availability,” says David Geary, policy adviser at the UK’s Recruitment and Employment Confederation.

“We’re seeing skills shortages across the economy, but especially relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We’re seeing demand within the engineering sector grow month on month, with roles such as engineers, CAD designers and aerospace professionals proving difficult to fill.”

The situation seems likely to get worse. According to research by EngineeringUK, engineering companies will need to recruit 2.56 million people before 2022, of which 163,000 each year will need to have completed advanced apprenticeships, HNDs or undergraduate degrees. The report estimates that existing supply stands at 108,000, suggesting a deficit of 55,000.

Immigration illustration, OMG!  

Pan-European labour pot

Despite the current initiatives to attract more young people to study engineering, it is clear these domestic newcomers will not be ready when the market needs them. The readiest short and medium-term solution to the skills gap problem is immigration.

“At the moment, there are not enough people becoming engineers going to university and studying engineering,” says Nick Leslie-Miller, owner of HMA International, a recruitment company specialising in tracking suitable candidates for the engineering and healthcare sector across the pan-European labour market.

“Moreover, many of the best and brightest of Britain’s very own engineering graduates will find themselves competed for by the likes of Marks and Spencer, Goldman Sachs or Procter and Gamble and will never actually enter engineering as a profession.

“The UK is part of the European Union, which was designed to work similarly to other large countries such as the USA or Australia.”

With every individual region of a large economic area going through the cycle of boom and bust at its own pace, labourers are meant to react with flexibility, smoothly addressing the higher demand in an area in boom while helping to alleviate the social pressure felt in those regions in crisis.

“For example, if the UK is prospering, property prices go up, jobs go up, cost of labour goes up, then from somewhere like Spain, which is not doing that well at the moment, the workers should be travelling to the UK to work,” explains Leslie-Miller, an advocate of intra-European labour migration.

“This is what’s happening in America. If Florida is doing well, people would go there but as the prices start to rise, property becomes expensive, the investment would move somewhere where it is cheaper to manufacture and the labourers would follow.

“This is what the European Union wants; it wants a flexible labour force with people travelling to where the jobs are from across the continent. The problem is that unlike in the US, it doesn’t work that well in the EU.”

While US citizens would feel at home wherever they go across their homeland, the same does not apply to Europe, where myriad languages and social and cultural habits prevail. The EU itself says that despite the lingering economic crisis having stirred the pan-European labour pot, the levels of intra-European labour mobility remain ‘modest’. Notably, workers with tertiary education made up 41 per cent of the intra-EU labour migrants in the period between 2009 and 2013, compared to 27 per cent for the previous quadrennium.

Cultural shocks

“Leaving behind friends and family was obviously difficult,” says Stavros, who, with his flawless English perfected over years and decades of binge-watching of British and American films and TV shows, fitted into his adopted environment seamlessly.

“I didn’t even feel a stranger here as almost 50 per cent of my colleagues are also immigrants from all over the world. What I miss is the weather and the food, but you get used to it as time goes by.”

Others, however, may experience a bumpier ride, such as Czech IT systems engineer Pavel, who says he dreamed of working in London ever since he was a teenager. Unlike Stavros, he arrived without a job offer on the table after his girlfriend, then an au pair with a British family, bought him a flight ticket.

“When I got here [two years ago], I realised my English wasn’t as good as I used to think it was,” Pavel admits. “I had troubles understanding different accents, which made the job interviews all the more stressful.”

Without having local certifications and frequently encountering the prejudice of some UK recruiters which consider eastern European workers fit only for simple manual labour, Pavel accepted that he would have to bite the bullet and start from scratch.

“I took a Level 1 IT job in a small company, fixing printers and helping people with PCs, while back in Prague I used to be already between Level 2 and 3, dealing with networks and servers,” he recalls. “I had to build up their trust in me. It took me about a year to work my way up to where I used to be. I think what impressed them was my versatility and creative approach to problem solving. They are not used to seeing it here.”

Leslie-Miller confirms that UK recruiters are frequently reluctant to look for workers in new European member states and prefer candidates from the Commonwealth.

“If you have somebody coming from Poland or Romania, there is a block, mentally, amongst employers that their skills are not good enough,” Miller explains.

“There is a perception among engineers in the UK that they are far superior in terms of qualifications and skills to more or less everyone else. And they think that if applicants have been educated through the commonwealth system, like Australia, South Africa, or to a lesser extent India, with the British type of education or training system, then the perception is that they would be fine.”

The non-EU arrivals

A legacy of an immigration reform – in place since 2008 – the UK introduced a version of Australia’s points-based visa system for people from overseas, but in rigidly outlined sectors, with visas dependent on job vacancies and applicants constrained to renew them from outside the country.

The result is a convoluted immigration system that drives away the top talent to rival economies, with countries like Canada seeking skilled workers from all sectors.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, says that given the uncertainty of where the exact skill shortages are and how the immigration system works, “it is quite difficult to make sure the economy gets exactly what is needed”.

The majority of experienced non-EU engineers wanting to come to the UK for paid work can either apply for a Tier 1 visa, for which you do not need a job offer, or have an employer apply for them under a Tier 2 visa. Together these made up almost half of the total of 120,900 work permits issued in 2013 for non-EU citizens, according to figures from the Migration Observatory.

Another problem is skewed statistics, particularly in higher education. A significant proportion of people who are training as engineers at UK universities are from overseas and as a result when they finish they either go back home because they want to or because the immigration policy can make it difficult for them to stay.

International and EU student numbers fell from 311,800 in 2011-12 to 307,205 in 2012-13, the Higher Education Funding Council for England reported in April last year. Under the current rules, students from outside the EU are allowed to stay in the UK for up to four months at the end of their course, whereas Canada and the US offer a 12-month leeway with the option to switch from student visas to work visas if they get graduate jobs.

“The credos at stake is, on the one hand, to give people long enough to find a high-skilled job and, on the other hand, not to give long periods of authorisations if they don’t make it in to highly skilled jobs. That’s a difficult issue to resolve,” Sumption says.

Immigration illustration, Aah!  

The missing brains

In every case, plugging the skills gaps with imported workers may have negative repercussions for the regions from which the workers originated.

In many European countries, Greece and the Czech Republic included, university education is free, paid from tax-payers contributions. Thus, every outflow of domestically trained experts is wasted investment, unless they return later with their newly acquired skills.

“Of course there are concerns about brain drain in Greece,” says Stavros. “Since the crisis began, more than 200,000 young and educated people have left. About 7,500 Greek doctors left the country, mostly for the UK, Germany or Sweden. Greece may not need them right now, but it could in the future.”
It’s not only Greece: Russia is also feeling the squeeze, having lost approximately half a million highly skilled educated workers in the past 15 years, according to estimates.

Anecdotes are circulating attributing some of the recent mishaps in the country’s once-pioneering space sector to the fact that the same engineers, now long past retirement age, have been assembling Russia’s famous Souyz and Proton rockets since the 1960s.

“There are many reasons why skilled people have been leaving Russia,” says Alexey Yablokov, a councillor at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and former environmental adviser to the Yeltsin administration.

“Fifteen years ago, the motivations were mostly financial. Later it was about wider and more attractive opportunities. The current anti-democratic climate here in Russia certainly plays its part today.”

The politics behind immigration

The shortages are a break on the economy, but also a symptom of an immigration system that UK party leaders are scrambling to reform. With the General Election knocking on the door and manifestos yet to be unveiled, the main parties need to stop making policy up as they go along.

In December 2014, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a plan that would require anyone whose student visa expires to leave and reapply if they want to continue their studies or take up a job. The proposal caused a huge outcry and the chances of it now appearing on the Conservative manifesto seem slim. More recently, UKIP party leader Nigel Farage made a U-turn on his party’s plan to cap immigration at 50,000. The current net migration is 298,000.

“I think there have been some unfortunate incidents, largely because the Tories have had this ill-thought-out agenda to try to cut migration, regardless of what sort of thing it is, with their target [of 100,000],” Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, says.

Labour and UKIP did not respond to E&T’s requests for comment, while a special adviser for a Conservative MP said that the party policy on immigration is the Home Secretary’s responsibility. Speaking at a conference in February 2015, Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to be a “champion” for engineering and manufacturing, and said that the government has failed to address the skills shortage in engineering, missing out on “wealth creation”.

Skilled engineers, which it is widely acknowledged the UK most urgently needs, are being pushed away by bureaucracy, complex rules and agencies that are tackling challenges with outdated technologies.

“The Home Office simply fails to make decisions promptly and accurately on applications,” Huppert says. “I know a number of people who end up not coming to the UK simply because the process takes too long or is unreliable.”

The Lib Dems’ proposed policies include bringing back the “absolutely essential post-study work visa”, Huppert told E&T. “We would do it initially for STEM subjects and if that works well, we would roll it out further”, he says. “If we have brilliant students who come here we should want them to contribute to the economy afterwards.”

Another plan would be to set up local systems where technology companies could certify that there is a skills shortage and so the people who are needed most could get a faster visa. “Ideally we’d roll out something like that around the country,” Huppert explains, “where people with desperately needed skills are not prevented by the bureaucracy to come here to contribute to companies that need them.”

Contrary to the popular view that immigrants are a burden to UK taxpayers, a study published in late 2014 by University College London revealed that EU immigrants contributed roughly £20bn more to the UK economy than they have taken in benefits in the past decade.

If the UK has hit a wall in terms of capacity and skills, the next government is duty bound to ensure that the country continues to attract the people it needs, as well as setting out comprehensive reforms of the immigration system. It seems clear that more immigration of skilled professionals is needed, not less.

Immigration illustration: more engineers!

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