The Great British Talent Hunt:
Skilled Worker Visas and The Ever-Changing Shortage Occupation List
In an age of globalisation, countries around the world vie for the brightest and most talented individuals to drive innovation and economic growth. The United Kingdom, with its storied history and bustling cityscapes, is no exception. In a bid to attract international talent and address its ever-widening skills gap, the UK government has been tweaking its Shortage Occupation List (SOL) and skilled worker visa system with all the enthusiasm of a contestant on “The Great British Bake Off.”
What is the Shortage Occupation List (SOL)?
The SOL, which identifies occupations suffering from a shortage of skilled workers, is a veritable smorgasbord of opportunity for those with the right ingredients – that is, qualifications and experience. From IT professionals and civil engineers to ballet dancers and archaeologists, the list is constantly evolving, reflecting the shifting demands of the UK economy. The SOL enables employers to hire key staff at a lower salary threshold of £20,960, compared to the current “skilled worker” salary threshold of £26,200, or at 80% of the going rate for the occupation, whichever is higher. The list also offers fast-tracked visa applications and reduced visa fees. By fast-tracking cheaper visa applications for those in these high-demand roles, the government hopes to address skills shortages and maintain the UK’s reputation as a powerhouse of innovation. However, the ease with which some businesses can now hire from abroad stands in stark contrast to the struggles smaller enterprises face when navigating the points-based immigration system.
Like a game of musical chairs, the constantly changing nature of the SOL can leave employers and prospective employees feeling like they’re chasing a moving target. With the list being reviewed and updated regularly, businesses must remain agile and well-informed to seize the opportunities that this policy presents. This can be particularly challenging for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that lack the resources and in-house expertise to navigate the complexities of the UK’s points-based immigration system. The government’s intention to address skills shortages by opening the doors to international talent is commendable, but the situation has unintentionally created an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion that can deter potential employees and frustrate employers.
Nevertheless, despite the constant flux, the SOL and skilled worker visa system have undeniably made the UK an even more attractive destination for talented professionals from around the world. The underlying message is clear: Come to the UK, and help us build a brighter future together.
In its most recent adjustment to the SOL, which took effect on 12 April 2023, the UK government decided to allow more people to get visas in order to work in the construction industry. Starting this summer, bricklayers, roofers, carpenters, plasterers, and construction workers will be added to the SOL. This change was one of many other adjustments the government made to the Immigration Rules and visa policies. One significant change is the rise in minimum gross annual salary thresholds for most applications.
From £25,600, it will now be £26,200, marking a £600 increase.
This also corresponds to a hike in the minimum hourly rate, which will go up from £10.10 to £10.75 per hour. This modification could potentially impact sponsored roles in sectors where salaries often hover around the minimum threshold. Moreover, there will be adjustments to the discounted minimum gross annual salaries for specific categories. For eligible PhD-qualified occupations, the salary will increase from £23,040 to £23,580. In the case of SOL roles, certain STEM roles, new entrants, and specific healthcare roles, the salary will rise from £20,480 to £20,960. In addition to salary thresholds, several new going rates for individual occupations have been announced. Importantly, going rates will now be based on a 37.5-hour working week instead of a 39-hour one. Employers need to consider this when calculating eligibility for sponsorship, especially if employees are contracted for longer weekly working hours.
Why the change?
The decision to add the construction jobs to the SOL follows the government’s acceptance of recommendations from an interim report published last week by the Migration Advisory Committee, which reviewed both the hospitality and construction sectors. The hospitality sector, however, which faces similar challenges as construction, is not expected to be added to the list at this stage. Instead, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) will conduct a broader review of the shortage list and issue a final report in the autumn. Construction has been given preferential treatment ahead of time.
Despite the changes, some are expressing reservations about the impact of the updated SOL. While the government’s recognition of the construction sector’s challenges and the benefits of lower visa costs and salary thresholds for foreign workers, it is unclear whether this step is enough to significantly alleviate the labour shortage in the construction industry. For example, the changes do not introduce new roles into the sponsorship system, meaning that employers can still only sponsor workers in positions they were already able to sponsor. For now, at least, the impact on acute labour shortages in the construction sector remains uncertain.
Reasons for Uncertainty
The reason for the uncertainty is that while the SOL and skilled worker visa system can certainly play a role in addressing skills shortages, they do not tackle the root causes of the UK’s skills gap. This gap is driven by various factors, including an ageing workforce, inadequate investment in domestic skills development, and the impact of Brexit on the availability of skilled workers from the European Union.
The ever-changing landscape of the UK’s SOL and skilled worker visa system presents both challenges and opportunities for employers. On one hand, the new points-based immigration system and the updated SOL facilitate hiring skilled non-UK resident workers in industries facing skills shortages. This is particularly beneficial for sectors such as healthcare, construction, and potentially hospitality, as they can now access a larger pool of international talent to fill critical roles.
But let’s not sugarcoat it: The UK’s approach to skilled migration is far from perfect. The points-based system, which can sometimes resemble a game of “pin the tail on the donkey,” inevitably leads to confusion and frustration for both employers and prospective employees. And the constant updates to the SOL can make it challenging for individuals to plan their careers and for businesses to plan their recruitment strategies.
It is important to remember that, because of Brexit, the immigration policy of the UK is still a work in progress. As the government continues to refine the system, there is hope that it will become more efficient and user-friendly for all parties involved.
In addition, the UK must not only focus on attracting skilled migrants but also on retaining them. This means creating an environment where these talented individuals can thrive, both professionally and personally. From addressing concerns about job security and career progression to promoting cultural integration and social support networks, the UK must ensure that it remains an attractive destination for global talent in the long term.
The UK’s SOL and skilled worker visa system, while not without its flaws, have become indispensable tools in the race to attract top international talent and address the country’s skills gap and labour shortages. While the ever-changing nature of the list can be bewildering, the overall message of openness and inclusivity is a powerful one. As the UK navigates the challenges of a post-Brexit world, it is crucial that it remains committed to attracting and nurturing the best and brightest minds from around the globe. By embracing the value of skilled migration and learning from the experiences of other countries, the UK can continue to be a leader in innovation and economic growth.