UK government must take decisive steps to attract and retain migrant engineers


UK engineering is heavily reliant on skilled overseas workers and yet it remains unclear how the sector will cope with the expected post-Brexit decline in immigration. Luna Williams,  from the Immigration Advice Service, calls on the government to ensure that Britain remains an attractive destination for the best and brightest. 

Testing times could well lie ahead for the engineering sector. Calculating the potential cost of Brexit continues to dominate planning for the entire engineering industry, as reliant as it has traditionally been on attracting overseas workers from both inside and outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

Image: @wi6995

The Confederation of British Industry’s latest projections amount to a stark warning about the industry’s future. While 2017 saw a shortfall of 20,000 engineers in the UK, last year EngineeringUK put their estimated skills deficit figure for 2024 at 265,000. In response, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) issued a recommended Shortage Occupation List update this May aimed at addressing the crisis.

Extending the amount and range of engineering roles included on the list, which targets overseas recruitment by loosening visa requirements on selected roles, the MAC’s revisions were met with relief by industry figures. However, concerns remain that, with the threat of a Hard or No Deal Brexit still looming large over the UK economy, the MAC’s proposed changes will not be enough to bail out the sector.

The shortage occupation list

Recent national initiatives like 2018’s “Year of Engineering” have failed to arrest the UK’s 20-year decline in its overall number of engineers. As a result, this vital industry has leant heavily on the recruitment of workers from within the EEA, as well as from countries further afield such as America, Canada and India. Engineering roles have also been a constant feature of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), a resource created by the British government in order to gage the need for non-EEA talent within the UK workforce.

Roles included on this list offer candidates applying for Tier 2 Visas – the most common work visa found in the UK – fewer administrative hurdles and reduced application costs. Alongside the traditional engineering sectors of mechanical, civil and process, more niche areas have been added to the list in previous decades, with the field of more specialised areas, such as nuclear engineering, experiencing a sharp decline in recruitment since its boom in the 1980s.

Published in May, the MAC’s report classified many engineering roles as ‘in-shortage’, paving the way for increased numbers of nationals from non-EEA countries to plug the gaps.

The forthcoming rupture of Brexit, however, complicates this plan. According to EngineeringUK, EEA-nationals make up a little under 10% of the engineering workforce in Britain, with the percentage in certain areas even higher. If the UK does depart the bloc, and Free Movement officially comes to an end, it remains unclear as to how exactly the engineering industry in Great Britain will cope with the expected decline in immigration.

The Brexit aftermath

Under current Home Office plans, all EEA nationals seeking work in the UK after Britain has left the EU will be subject to the same visa demands currently made of non-EEA workers. For those looking to sign short-term contracts, this will mean applying for a Work Visa through a Tier 2-registered employer, as well as a Dependent Visa if they are traveling with partners or children.

Longer-term moves, which will surely be encouraged by UK employers, will embroil the applicant in the even more convoluted and stringent process of applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain and/or British citizenship.

The fees involved in making these applications are off-putting. Applying for an engineering position that features on the SOL would still cost a single applicant £464, with the same fee levied against each of their dependents. At £2389 for an individual applicant, and the same again for each of their family-members, the expense of the Indefinite Leave to Remain option renders it even more of a deterrent, while the current price for a British citizenship application stands at £1,330 – once again, for both the worker and each of their loved ones.

At a time when, as the CBI attests, Britain urgently needs to attract more, not fewer engineers, these application fees could prove extremely detrimental. EEA-born nationals will have no real incentive to move to the UK while their Free Movement rights remain intact throughout the continent.

Indeed, it seems more than likely that UK employers will begin to miss out on talented engineers from countries such as France, Belgium and Germany precisely because of the restrictions on immigration the government is currently planning.

A way forward

The MAC’s recommended adjustments to the Shortage Occupation List are a vital first step in addressing the current and projected shortfalls of engineers employed in the UK. It would short-sighted however, to think Brexit – in whatever form it eventually materialises – does not demand an even more robust response.

If Britain is to uphold its reputation as a world leader in the engineering field it must take quick and decisive steps to safeguard the employment rights of its overseas workers, and continue to ensure the UK remains an attractive destination for the best and brightest engineers, whatever their nationality.

Luna Williams is a political correspondent with the Immigration Advice Service (IAS), an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK that assists with Work Visa applications for overseas individuals and UK employers.