With approximately 1.2 million current job vacancies open, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), skills shortages are continuing to escalate, particularly in the care, science, engineering and hospitality sectors.
But with home secretary Suella Braverman already promising a tougher line on immigration, how could UK immigration policy look next year, what are the key policies that could impact the hire of overseas workers and how can HR prepare to manage further talent shortages?
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Even before the change of prime minister and a boomeranging home secretary it appeared there was a strong likelihood of reforms to update the immigration system, so this now seems even more likely.
Of the current options available, these are most likely to focus on high-skilled immigration initially, so Braverman is most likely to want employers to continue to benefit from existing categories such as the High Potential Individuals (HPIs) scheme and the graduate visa, although if any new measures were adopted these would need to be examined first for suitability.
While an outside bet could be the return of a Highly Skilled Migrant scheme, but I think that’s more likely in the longer-term future.
There has been speculation for some time that the shortage occupation list could be expanded to allow other lower-skilled occupations to be added for a set period.
While on the face of it this looks like a very workable solution to include some much-needed ‘less skilled’ occupations such as care workers or chefs, for employers this list is not as attractive as it once was due to the Immigration Skills Charge payable by them (between £364-£1,000 per year, per worker).
The costs of the NHS surcharge (£470-£624 per person, per year) normally covered by the employee also make it less attractive to these workers.
So, unless the government makes certain jobs exempt from these charges, or lowers them dramatically, it would just be a sticking plaster option that might appear useful but would not effectively impact on shortages as lower numbers of employers will choose this route due to the costs.
An adjustment to the NHS surcharge and Immigration Skills Charge might be favoured and seen as more needed in sectors such as care or public services roles.
It has also been mooted that other options might include withdrawing the English language requirement and speeding up visa processing, but here I am not expecting any dramatic changes in processing speed, despite massive ongoing problems with delays.
I am expecting to see adjustments to the temporary seasonal worker route which could be updated to include other sectors under a quota scheme.
The route has lower Home Office fees. It is short term only for employers, but could be appealing to Braverman for its temporary nature. For HRs in the farming, horticulture and poultry sectors this is definitely one to look out for.
A new option to start limiting overseas students’ ability to bring dependents and their involvement in the labour market, unless they are sponsored, could see a reduction in students and therefore future graduates for employers.
These restrictions might range from hiking fees massively for each additional dependant, having dependants qualify under their own immigration status from the outset, only having students with dependents under STEM subjects, or even a blanket ban.
All would naturally have a knock-on effect to the talent pipeline as many overseas students begin their careers in the UK for at least a year or two under routes such as the graduate visa.
Against the dramas in recent months and now our latest prime minister, I am expecting more of an evolution of policy in 2023 than revolution, with policies still favouring ‘skilled’ or ‘highly skilled’ roles to attract qualified overseas workers.
Now more than ever HR needs to plan ahead to forecast recruitment requirements, identify the most suitable routes available as policy evolves, while also having tools such as sponsor licences in place to be best prepared for whatever 2023 brings.
Jonathan Beech is managing director at immigration law firm Migrate UK