Will the shortage occupation list be expanded?

Claire D Nilson and Hodon Buraleh outline the implications of considering a wider range of roles for priority visas

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent, non-departmental public body that advises and makes recommendations to the government, published its recommendation for a new Shortage Occupation List (SOL) in May. It recommended an expansion of the list of jobs that get priority for work visas. If accepted by the Home Office, the new list will cover 9 per cent of jobs in the UK market rather than the 1 per cent currently covered.  

The SOL is an official list of occupations with insufficient resident workers to fill vacancies. Employers who wish to recruit employees from outside the EU to fill a vacancy appearing on the SOL may issue a Tier 2 certificate of sponsorship without the need to demonstrate that a resident labour market test has been undertaken. 

Roles on the SOL are exempt from the minimum income threshold for settlement, elicit lower visa fees, and receive priority if the 20,700 cap on visas is reached. Migrants who come to the UK to fill a skilled job in a Tier 2 category on the SOL will gain enough qualifying points without evidencing their prospective earnings or qualifications.

Some occupations have been added to the list, such as archaeologists, architects, biochemists, occupational therapists, psychologists and web designers. Additionally, many other categories of the SOL – including medical practitioners, nurses, and programmers – have been broadened. For example, all medical doctors are now included instead of just certain specialists.

Other recommendations include considering medium-skilled occupations where the MAC believes shortages may be emerging – such as science and technology technicians, construction workers and social care professionals – and that might become eligible for the SOL in the future. It also recommended removing the outdated restriction where chefs were only a shortage occupation if working in a restaurant that did not offer a takeaway service. 

The new system is proposed to focus on skills over nationality. A job being on the SOL makes it easier for employers to hire non-EU workers under the Tier 2 (General) work visa system. This removes some of the hoops employers must jump through to recruit non-EU workers when local candidates are unavailable. It also makes it cheaper and easier for qualifying foreign national migrants to enter the UK. 

Expanding the list does not mean that more work visas are available overall. This list does not affect the 20,700 Tier 2 (General) annual limit. Rather, it means there are more jobs that can get priority when the quota is reached so those who are most needed are at the front of the queue for visa issuance. What would be a great advantage for businesses would be if the Home Office actually exempted some jobs from the cap (such as doctors and nurses), allowing more workers to come in to the UK to fill these roles.

The ending of free movement will present additional costs and challenges for employers. The MAC says the SOL might become redundant under a post-Brexit immigration system, to be replaced with an alternative method for assessing the needs of different occupations. A potential role of the SOL in the future immigration system could see the range of eligible jobs expanded and potentially a replacement of the SOL with a new approach to identifying and implementing skills-based criteria. 

On the flip side, the expansion of the list highlights serious warning signs for the UK labour market post-Brexit. This list identifies various industries where the UK has a skills shortage. The MAC elaborates that this report is a recognition of the “increasing difficulty” facing UK employers in recruiting for certain roles. Does this mean the ever-tightening immigration rules and the perceived hostile immigration environment have deterred much-needed talented EU skilled workers from coming to the UK? How will a future immigration system post-Brexit accommodate skills shortages? 

It remains unclear if and when the government will decide on these recommendations and if the changes will occur at a later date. An expansion of the SOL is possible. The Home Office may likely accept the new list in full. However, for now the current shortage occupation list still applies.

Claire D Nilson is counsel and Hodon Buraleh a paralegal at Faegre Baker Daniels