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The New Points Based Immigration System — can the shortage occupation list solve the UK construction worker shortage?

Our expert, Mandy Higgins looks at whether can the shortage occupation list solve the UK construction worker shortage.

New research published this month by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford reveals that in 2019, there were 113,000 EU-born workers employed in skilled construction and building trades. The construction sector relies heavily on foreign migrant labour for skilled and non-skilled roles. Now the UK has left the EU and the guarantee of free movement, it is feared that the skills shortage will worsen.

A report by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) said that their aim was to have an extra 44,000 British-based people in construction by 2025. This is to be achieved through apprenticeships, retaining workers in the sector for longer and exploiting technological advances. However, the report also said these actions would not alleviate shortages in the short term.

From 1 January 2021, the new points-based immigration system (PBS) applies to all job applicants outside the UK resident labour market (including EU workers) seeking employment in the UK in construction occupations requiring ‘skilled workers’. For the first time, this includes sponsorship of ‘medium skilled’ jobs.

Job applicants must demonstrate that they meet the specific requirements for which they will score points. The following requirements are mandatory:

  • Job offer from a Home Office-licenced sponsor;
  • Required skill level — A level and equivalent;
  • English spoken to the required standard.

There are also minimum salary requirements: the higher of £25,600 or the specific salary requirement for the occupation.

Job applicants can ‘trade’ certain characteristics, such as their qualifications, in substitution for a lower salary. If the salary offered is below the minimum threshold, a job applicant may still be eligible if the job is in a shortage occupation or they have a PhD.

Is the shortage occupation list the answer to the worker shortage?

The potential shortage of EU workers available to the construction industry as a result of the new immigration rules has been much publicised. Now EU skilled labour is subject to the same immigration rules as non-EU skilled labour, the UK construction sector could witness higher project costs if labour demand outstrips supply.

Any EU skilled construction worker wishing to come to the UK today will be subject to the points-based application system and will require sponsorship. The new immigration system is designed to attract skilled workers with a skills level threshold of A-level or equivalent. This will include architects and engineers and also skilled trades such as carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and plasterers. However, lower-skilled jobs such as general labourers are not included.

In September 2020, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended that bricklayers and masons and also welders should be recognised as skilled worker shortage occupations.

To qualify for a visa, an applicant must earn a minimum salary of £25,600 a year or the going rate for the role, if higher. However, if the job is in a shortage occupation they only need to earn £20,480.

If the Government had accepted the MAC’s advice to add bricklayers/masons and welders to the shortage occupation list, EU construction workers would have been eligible to apply for a significant number of those roles.

The Government has said it will not, at this point, accept the MAC’s recommendation to place those roles on the shortage occupation list. The reason is that it wishes to assess how the labour market develops following the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to the new immigration system being introduced. A more likely explanation is that there has been insufficient time to properly consider and implement the MAC recommendations.

It is predicted that there will be calls for more skilled construction jobs to be added to the shortage occupation list to alleviate the skills shortage in the UK construction sector.

Next steps?

  • If they have not already done so, construction companies should consider applying to the Home Office for a sponsor licence so that they have the ability to recruit skilled construction workers from outside the UK. It is important to cost out the additional recruitment costs for each overseas worker so that these costs can be reflected in budgets and cost projections;
  • Any EU construction worker who was resident in the UK prior to 1 January 2021 can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme for either pre-settled or settled status with a deadline date of 30 June 2021. Construction companies should encourage and provide support to any existing EU worker to apply if they have not already done so as to secure their right to live and work in the UK.

If you need advice, please contact our experienced business immigration solicitors. We are here to help you.

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