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Why the UK engineering sector needs overseas workers


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By Daliah Sklar

It’s no secret that there’s a severe skills shortage affecting all parts of the UK economy. Businesses all over are struggling to fill vacancies and find the talent with the skills they need. Amongst the sectors most affected are those that require a highly developed skillset as standard, such as engineering.

The UK government has flagged a healthy engineering sector as being vital to its economic and environmental goals, making it absolutely crucial to the country as a whole. Unfortunately, there is currently a huge surplus of vacancies, over 173,000. This is estimated to cost the UK economy around £1.5bn a year.

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There are plenty of factors affecting the shortage, from new IR35 regulations, the pandemic and the loss of EU-based talent due to Brexit. Any qualified engineers based in the UK but from EU countries who did not apply through the EU settlement scheme or were unsuccessful in their application would’ve had to leave post-Brexit by January 2021, which led to a significant loss in talent.

Engineering has been highlighted as a key industry to help deliver Britain’s transition towards greener energy, and with the UN deadline to halve carbon emissions by 2030 looming, time is not a luxury the sector has.

Many engineering leaders are keen to stress the importance in education to help fill the skills gap, through the promotion of more STEM subjects at school. A survey from the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) one year ago discovered that half of all new engineering recruits lacked the right skills for the industry, showing that a renewed emphasis on engineering at school could be a prescient strategy.

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However, education is a long-term solution and will take time. For many businesses, they will still need an immediate solution to keep them going until then.

A solution to help the engineering industry in the short-term is to look abroad at the wealth of foreign talent available. Unfortunately, UK employers who want to hire skilled individuals from abroad are faced with a myriad of additional legal and bureaucratic hurdles, which have been exacerbated since Brexit. These include applying for and managing a sponsor licence to hire from outside the UK, audited by the Home Office and new hires requiring a UK work visa.

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Obtaining the necessary licences, certificates and visas is time-consuming, confusing and expensive, with cash-strapped employers having to pay the Home Office, international recruitment agencies, immigration advisors and relocation experts to verify the legitimacy of the foreign worker and their skill set and assist with the complex process. Thus, many companies do not want to enter this complex process leaving them without vitally needed workers and overworked existing team members. The pain will not disappear and new technology should be introduced to ease the gap of shortages in the labour field urgently.

A recent report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee concluded the UK has a widespread shortage of all STEM skills. The report recommended the country do more to encourage overseas workers, stating that foreign talent is a key part of the solution and the government should look into making the immigration process as simple as possible for them.

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It should be plain for anyone to see that to overcome engineering shortages in the sector these procedures should be simplified for both employers and job seekers, cutting red tape and being able to match the best person to the open roles. It’s excellent to see the Science and Technology Committee pinpoint this issue so accurately. For example, with the highest number of IVY league engineering schools, such as Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Stanford and another 100 schools in the US, America is renowned for generating the best engineers worldwide. The UK should be able to hire these engineers simply and fast.

Once taught how to navigate these procedures, we believe that quality non-UK applicants will help save the engineering sector in its time of crisis by connecting potential applicants from across the globe with unfilled positions in the UK in a process that is fair and balanced and that promotes diversity and skills wherever possible. The issue here is not immigration but integration, which is currently hampered only by the bureaucracy of borders.

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*Daliah Sklar is chief executive and UK immigration solicitor at DRSI Global

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