Non-EU workers formed majority of skilled visa applications last year, official figures show

The higher cost of the new system is now being offset by the demand for skills, experts say

The rise in the number of skilled worker visa applications last year was largely driven by non-EU nationals, the government’s official advisory body on migration has said.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said 2021 saw the number of skilled worker visa applications pick up following the end of the third national lockdown, with monthly applications rising by over 50 per cent between May and June 2021.

In the three months to June 2021, the UK saw 68 per cent more visa applications than in the same period in 2019 – which the MAC said might have been partly due to pent-up demand for visas caused by the pandemic.

But, it said, there was still “relatively low usage from EEA [European Economic Area] nationals compared to the rest of the world”, who made up just 8 per cent of applications for this type of visa.

In its annual report, the MAC also said that concerns outlined in 2020 that the new skilled worker visa route would be too expensive for employers to use to bring in lower-skilled jobs were valid. There has been “little use” of this visa route in 2021 for roles that are graded at RQF 3-5 – at or above A-level, NVQ3 or equivalent – it said.

Senior care workers made up more than a third of the 5,000 individuals who applied for a skilled worker visa with this level of qualification, it said.

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In all, 91 per cent of skilled worker visa applications were from individuals with an RQF 6 qualification – a bachelor's degree, graduate diploma or equivalent.

However, Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, said his firm had seen a “recent and sharp rise” in the number of employers turning to the new immigration system to fill vacancies lower than RQF 6 – particularly clients in the hospitality and catering industry looking for chefs and front-of-house managers, but also in the horse-racing industry.

“The higher visa fees and uplift in salary required for these vacancies is being offset by the requirement to fill acute shortages,” he said.

“The other huge shift of course is employee poaching,” Beech added. “Sponsored employee retention is difficult at the moment.”

As for EU migration, Beech said his experience matches that of the MAC report, with the number of skilled visa applicants low. But, he said, he expected this number to rise in time now that the EU Settlement Scheme has closed.

Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, said the next 12 months would shape the UK’s migration patterns. “A critical issue of our new immigration system is labour shortages in lower-skilled roles,” she said.

“The Home Office had envisaged that our new immigration system would be more user friendly and streamlined and while some stakeholders have found that true, the MAC’s report suggests this is not a reflective experience for all users,” Patel said.

SMEs in particular are still “being priced out of the market”, she added. And while some care homes can use the skilled visa route to bring in senior staff, many are left “without any options” when it comes to finding care workers, she said.

“The Home Office made clear that the aim was to shift reliance away from ‘cheap labour from Europe’ and employers should look to upskill existing labour and/or invest in people already in the UK. We’ve seen that in some sectors, like social care, this isn’t that simple.

“As we live in this post-Brexit era, many UK employers are having to adapt quickly to find solutions to labour market problems and weigh up the costs of sponsorship,” said Patel.