New visa schemes are urgently needed to stem a growing crisis across numerous sectors where the re-opening of the economy from Covid restrictions has laid bare the extent of labour shortages caused by Brexit.
Employers are warning that the end of furlough on September 30 will not be enough to shake loose the number of workers needed to fill record-high vacancies across the UK. Their rising alarm comes amid suggestions that elements of “snobbery” have skewed UK Government visa programmes to favour degree-level professionals while side-lining service and trade occupations.
A new UK Graduate Visa unveiled in March will allow overseas students who have completed a graduate or postgraduate course in the UK to remain for at least two years, or three years for PhD graduates, if they subsequently secure employment. The aim is to give employers access to a wider pool of talent as the UK recovers from the economic impact of the pandemic.
Announcing the launch of the graduate visa, Future Borders and Immigration Minister Kevin Forster said: “The changes announced today will ensure once [overseas students] have received a gold standard qualification from one of our world-leading education institutions, they can easily secure the status they need to continue living, working and fulfilling their dreams in the UK.”
In a similar vein, a new pilot scheme launched in July will allow up to 100 skilled but forcibly displaced people – often refugees – to qualify for work permits in the UK. Employers can source potential recruits from the Talent Beyond Boundaries catalogue, a “LinkedIn for refugees” containing approximately 26,000 people with experience working in the health, engineering, technology and similar sectors that qualify under the Skilled Worker Visa programme.
Kelly Hardman, a solicitor with global immigration firm Fragomen based in Edinburgh, said the pilot could be a valuable new source of talent for Scottish employers. However, it does not expand the categories of skilled workers, but rather makes the visa application process easier for those who have had to flee dangerous circumstances, often leaving behind evidence of qualifications and similar documents.
“There will be a handful in say the hospitality sector – people like restaurant managers – who may qualify, but if you are looking at baristas, waiters and hauliers, those types of jobs, then they would not be eligible under the current guidelines,” she said.
Such programmes will therefore be of little use to firms like AC Whyte, the Barrhead-based contractor that specialises in delivering energy efficiency projects across social and private housing.
Managing director Jennifer Phin said the family-owned firm has seen a significant decrease in employee numbers as staff from the EU, who made up about half of the workforce, have returned to their home countries amid the uncertainties of Brexit and the pandemic. This in turn has had knock-on effects for training the next generation of plasterers, brick layers, and other tradespeople at the company’s in-house Skills Academy.
“We feel as though we are in a perfect storm at the moment,” Ms Phin said.
“Scotland has some of the most stringent net zero targets of any nation, and there is no support for the core trades that are required to sit behind that. We see this as one of the single biggest risks to meeting those targets.”
Industry body the Scottish Hospitality Group is calling on Westminster to work with the three devolved nations to introduce a migrant visa scheme to address staff shortages that have forced many restaurants and bars to continue with reduced opening hours despite the lifting of Covid restrictions. According to SHG spokesman Stephen Montgomery, the impact from the closing of the furlough scheme will be “too little, too late”.
SHG member Nic Wood, owner of the Signature Group, said just 18 of his 21 venues are currently open, and of those, just four are trading full-time. With all 500 staff back from furlough, he said he needs at least another 100 to get back to normal trading.
“It is like a noose – it is going to get harder and tighter – and unless government does something about it now we are going to be facing a real crisis in the next five to six months,” he said.