Stricter immigration policy 'could harm the UK in the long run'

Harnessing engineers’ abilities is crucial, and while countries such as Canada and Australia are actively seeking foreign engineers, the UK has yet to declare a clear and decisive position on professional immigration.

As of January 2015 engineers can apply for express entry into Canada under a new system intended to fill the gaps in the labour market. Skilled workers who want to apply are able to create an online profile and ask to become a permanent resident. Canada will then regularly invite the best people from the pool of applicants to immigrate.

“The fact that everyone who was invited to apply for permanent residence in this round of invitations already has a valid job offer shows that Express Entry is working to fill Canada’s existing labour market gaps,” Chris Alexander, Canada’s immigration minister, said in a statement.

The UK’s arguably less efficient analogue counterpart for bridging the skills gap is the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). However, as Madeleine Sumption from the Migration Observatory told E&T news, “all the list really does is reduce the administrative requirements when an employer is applying for [a visa for] someone”.

While the UK currently recognises 32 occupations that face shortages, Canada’s Express Entry has 347 eligible occupations. According to figures from the Home Office released late last year, 1,171 non-EU engineers entered the country in 2013-14 under SOL. Such numbers pale in comparison with the IET’s estimated requirement of 87,000 new engineers per year necessary to meet demand.

Immigration reforms are a key election battleground, with the UK Independence Party (UKIP), some Conservative MPs and the mayor of London rallying round the ‘Australian points-based system’ (PBS) to be fully implemented for both EU and non-EU arrivals.

This would mean restricting the free movement of people in Europe and reforming the UK’s existing points-based system with its lengthy list of sub-visas – as opposed to only two broad classes for Australia.

However, there is a growing business backlash to the tightening of immigration rules. Sir James Dyson, inventor, founder of the Dyson company and one of the prime minister’s business advisers, has repeatedly condemned the UK’s immigration rules.

“Dyson is searching for scientists and engineers. But there simply are not enough. Quite simply, there aren’t enough out there,” Dyson wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper. “I do worry about Britain’s ability to make, make, make. Make engineering breakthroughs. Make scientific progress. And, yes, make money for UK plc,” he said.

Figures from the IET’s Skills and Demand survey also showed that 59 per cent of companies were concerned that the shortage of engineers would be a threat to their business in the UK. Moreover, the UK risks missing out on an additional £27bn per year for the economy from 2022 – the equivalent of building 1,800 schools or 110 hospitals – if it fails to fill the demand for new engineering jobs, according to research from Engineering UK.

In 2010, the Coalition government introduced a cap of 20,700 on the number of Tier 2 visas for skilled workers that can be issued, but also introduced a series of changes to the regime in April 2013 requiring greater advertising of jobs to UK workers before they can be offered to overseas workers.

The UK cap is arbitrary and differs from Australia’s annual cap, which fluctuates on the basis of economic, social and demographic factors such as demand for skilled labour and ability to absorb that labour.

Party leaders will find it hard to have it both ways. One alternative would be removing professions such as engineering that are heavily listed on the SOL from the cap.

Coming up with immigration reforms that would be flexible, fair and transparent for experienced engineers, but also an economic boon for the companies looking to recruit them, is not the only challenge, industry figures say.

Sir David Metcalf, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, told E&T news: “This is not a migration matter, this is a skills matter,” while Claire Donovan, from the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that given the disparate nature of the industry “engineers from overseas are potentially a solution, but it can only be part of the solution.”

Read our in-depth feature:

Immigration: where should we stand on the big election issue?

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