Number of UK work visas at highest level since 2009

Official figures confirm businesses are looking further afield for talent as Brexit nears

The number of work visas issued last year was the highest since 2009, the latest government migration statistics show, as experts say patterns of recruitment are changing in response to Brexit.

In the year to September 2018, the number of work-related visas – issued to workers from outside the EU – increased 5 per cent on the previous year to reach 171,679, according to Home Office statistics

This was largely attributed to a 7 per cent rise in tier 2 visas for skilled workers, the majority of which (55 per cent) were granted to Indian nationals.

ONS statistics also released today showed non-EU net migration was the highest since 2004, with 248,000 more non-EU citizens arriving than leaving.

Net EU migration was still positive, with 74,000 more EU citizens arriving than leaving – however, this was the lowest level since 2014. 

Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, told People Management these figures indicate recruiters are looking beyond Europe for skills. “The whole pattern of recruitment has changed, and recruiters are finding it very, very difficult to fill their skilled vacancies,” he said.

Beech added employers do not have the same pool of talent in the UK they would find among EU workers, and as a result Migrate UK is now helping many more organisations obtain sponsor licenses. “We’ve probably dealt with five times as many in the last 12 months as we draw closer [to Brexit],” he said.

Indian clients bringing over IT teams to work on finance and insurance projects in the UK made up a large portion of the increase in visas, added Beech.

“It could be that these companies are getting more work with their end clients in the UK, because their end clients can’t find EU nationals to do the work, or because of the pay structure. But we’re certainly finding that the IT companies are very, very busy.”

Today’s migration statistics also recorded a 29 per cent drop in the number of registration certification and registration cards issued to EEA nationals in the 12 months to September, and a 46 per cent drop in the number of registration certificates issued to EU nationals. This was an indication, said Beech, that many were waiting for the new settled and pre-settled statuses to be rolled out.

Applications for citizenship were up 8 per cent, and applications from EU nationals were up 32 per cent, as people eligible for citizenship apply before residency rules change.

ONS statistics released earlier this month showed the number of EU nationals working in the UK fell by 132,000 in the three months to September, the largest drop since records began in 1997.

Ian Brinkley, CIPD acting chief economist, told People Management the statistics were not surprising, and were a continuation of recent migration trends.

“If you’re in an economy like the UK, which has been expanding pretty consistently over a long period of time, where unemployment is very low, where the native population is getting a lot older, you’re going to suck labour in,” he said.

“We can already see that skills shortages and labour shortages are both going up, so everything is pointing to the fact that we’re becoming an increasingly supply-concentrated economy. And if you then reduce migration in that context, you’re going to have more severe constraints on future growth rather than less.”

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which recently released a white paper warning the public sector faced up to seven years of skills shortages, said the latest migration statistics came at a time when employers were already struggling to find the staff and skills they needed.

“REC data shows that candidate availability is declining month on month, and that 75 per cent of employers have little or no capacity to take on more work without needing to hire more staff,” said Tom Hadley, REC’s director of policy.

“The shortage is acute across both the private and public sector – particularly in social care and the NHS, where ensuring safe staffing levels is an absolute must.”

The REC estimates 10,000 EU staff have left the NHS since the Brexit referendum, and this summer the government removed doctors and nurses from the Tier 2 visas requirements after overall limits had been repeatedly breached in the first half of the year.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the CBI, called for any post-Brexit migration system to be “based on evidence”.

He said 92 per cent of businesses cited Brexit as impacting their ability to recruit and train staff in 2018. “This means hospitals, schools and housebuilders are already struggling to get the staff they need. Banning workers from overseas earning less than £30,000 will only make this worse,” he said.

“Any new system must be based on evidence rather than politically driven targets. Most importantly, firms of all sizes and sectors will need ample time to adjust to what will be a seismic change.”