The UK government has been clear that free movement of European Economic Area (EEA) nationals into the UK will end with Brexit. This will result in an unprecedented shake-up of the UK labour market, with employers no longer able to rely on a steady stream of skills and labour from Europe. It is anticipated that, post Brexit, EEA nationals will require some form of work visa to take employment in the UK.
The first indications of what the UK's post-Brexit immigration system might look like came in the recently published Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report on EEA migration to the UK.
The first takeaway from the report is that the MAC is recommending EEA nationals should no longer receive preferential treatment – when considering who is eligible to come to work in the UK, all nationalities will be treated the same (notwithstanding any trade deal the UK and the EU are able to agree).
With fewer EEA nationals coming to the UK, there is scope to look at easing some of the strict requirements that non-EEA nationals currently need to satisfy. One recommendation from the MAC in this regard is that the skill threshold to qualify for an employer-sponsored Tier 2 work permit be lowered. This is where there is a potential silver lining for employers of medium- and highly skilled migrants.
Since 2012, the skill threshold for a role to qualify under Tier 2 has been RQF Level 6 – which means the role typically requires a candidate skilled to graduate level or above. There are approximately 100 occupation classifications that are deemed to be skilled to this level, including engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants and teachers.
However, prior to this, the skill level was RQF Level 4 (Higher National Certificate/diploma level) from 2011 to 2012, and RQF Level 3 (A Level) from 2008 to 2011. There are approximately 140 occupation classifications skilled at Level 3 and Level 4, including many in skilled trades, hospitality, retail and entry level roles in business, finance and sales.
Lowering the skill threshold to RQF Level 3 and above would open up a further 140 roles for Tier 2 employer-sponsored work permits – many of which employers have struggled to fill locally or with migrants from Europe, including:
- IT operations technicians;
- medical and dental technicians;
- financial and accounting technicians;
- health and safety officers;
- customer service managers;
- retail managers;
- hotel and restaurant managers;
- graphic designers;
- sales administrators;
- electricians and electrical fitters;
- plumbers and heating and ventilation engineers;
- builders and building contractors;
- senior care workers;
For those employers who have struggled to find suitable candidates for medium-skilled occupations at RQF Levels 3 and 4 – for example, because they require specific language skills, or because there is simply a shortage of suitable candidates from the UK and Europe – the post-Brexit immigration system may be more beneficial than current free movement arrangements.
There is a long way to go before we have clarity on post-Brexit immigration. Key milestones will be the EU and the UK completing negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement and ‘future relationship’, as well as the immigration white paper due later this year, which should outline the extent to which the government intends to implement the MAC's recommendations.
In the meantime, UK employers should review their reliance on skills and labour from the EEA and start planning how best to retain their current EEA national talent, and how they will attract new talent once free movement ends.
Jessica Pattinson is head of immigration at Dentons