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A Shortage Occupation List review in 2022 is too late
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A Shortage Occupation List review in 2022 is too late

Jobs that British employers struggle to recruit for are on the Shortage Occupation List. With separate entries for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it seeks to be responsive to the needs of industry across the devolved nations. The Migration Advisory Committee advises the UK government on which roles should be on the list. The next MAC review is pressing — but will not even begin until 2022.

Struggling sectors

Some sectors, such as adult social care, have been screaming for attention for years now. Hiring staff on a Skilled Worker visa generally requires them to be paid at least £25,600, and for the role to pass a minimum skills threshold (RQF Level 3). Employers in certain sectors are unable to meet either. A role being on the Shortage Occupation List entitles employers to hire at lower salaries, as well as to overlook the skills threshold.

Senior care workers (SOC 6146) were included in the last update of the Shortage Occupation List. But it is not senior care workers who are in the shortest supply. The jobs that locals refuse to do are the ones that involve hands-on care of the elderly and the vulnerable. Those are not listed as shortage occupations. The MAC’s Brian Bell explained the committee’s reasoning in a letter to Priti Patel:

The MAC has argued for some years now that funding social care to a level that enables higher wages to be paid, and consequently makes jobs more attractive to the domestic workforce, is the right way to address the workforce issues in the sector, rather than relying on migrant workers to fill the gaps. We continue to hold this view. However, the risks of this funding increase not happening in a timely manner are stark. If that does not occur, or occurs with substantial delay, we would expect the end of freedom of movement to increase the pressure on the social care sector, something that would be particularly difficult to understand at a time when so many care occupations are central to the COVID-19 pandemic frontline response.

The MAC has now launched a call for evidence on this very issue, with responses required by 29 October 2021. But it will not be reporting back until April 2022. The need is pressing, here and now — not whenever small wage increases trickle through.

Many care homes simply cannot afford the kind of salaries that would be required for Skilled Worker even with the 20% shortage reduction. They will need to lobby for sector-specific solutions.

Then there are the roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and homes that need to be built. In September 2020, the MAC recommended that SOC 3114 (building and civil engineering technicians) did not need to be added to the Shortage Occupation List, despite noting that a relatively high proportion of EU nationals are involved in this occupation. By March 2021, New Civil Engineer was warning that “a large majority of construction and engineering firms have reported serious concerns about a lack of skilled workers”.

Why is this happening? One problem might be the dearth of responses to the MAC review. Only two stakeholders replied to its call for evidence on SOC 3114. The rest can hardly be surprised that the MAC did not come down in their favour. But then, how many people in the care sector know that there is currently a call for evidence due by the end of October? Perhaps the MAC ought to be more proactive in soliciting evidence.

Supermarkets need to be provisioned properly before we are all forced into arable farming in our back gardens [or window boxes, for those of us in London — Ed.]. With extra red tape at the borders, lorry drivers are in short supply. The Road Haulage Association has been warning about supply chain issues since July 2018 and is now calling on the government to add this important work to the Shortage Occupation List, as training can take at least 18 months. But the MAC report of September 2020 makes no mention of this sector whatsoever and the government appears to be turning a deaf ear to the needs of industry.

SOL, the sole solution

Employers in these sectors often face an inescapable conundrum. Even if the roles they want to hire for are eligible for Skilled Worker sponsorship (given the now lowered salary and skills threshold), potential hires are often unable to pass the B1 English language requirement — even though many do not really need such language skills for the work they do. 

Equally, such employers might be willing to pay the hefty £41,500 minimum salary required to bring someone in on the Intra-Company Transfer route, where there is no language requirement, but that requires the role to be graded at a much higher skill level (RQF level 6). Building and civil engineering technicians, for example, do not qualify for Intra-company Transfer.

The only solution left standing is a slot on the Shortage Occupation List.

Crisis, what crisis?

We no longer have the support of our EU friends and neighbours moving freely across our borders to do the heavy lifting as they have for decades. No amount of apprentice schemes and incentives will make a difference when the need is here and now. We need an honest uncensored look at the needs of industry. There is no patented jab for individual companies to inoculate them against economic collapse.  

The immigration minister, Kevin Foster, is more sanguine. In a letter to the MAC in March 2021, Foster stated that the government will not be seeking another review of the shortage list until next year:

We agree with the MAC’s recommendations [that] there should be a more regular pattern of major and minor reviews of the SOL in future, and the first major review should not take place before 2022. We do not intend to commission a minor review this year, making the major review in 2022 the first under this new approach.

How many businesses end up throwing in the towel in the meantime remains to be seen.

Nilmini Roelens is founder and principal solicitor of Roelens Solicitors in Oxford.