Impact of UK visa and immigration system on engineering recruitment

February 26, 2020

Source: narvikk/iStock

For many UK employers, one of the biggest unknowns in the Brexit process has long been the issue of access to labour.

While the government has committed to ending free movement between the UK and the EU, not much has been announced on the precise nature of the rules that’ll replace it.

Until now, that is. This month, the Home Office published a statement on its new “firm and fair” points-based system, set to be introduced on January 1st 2021 and intended to “attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services”.

As the biggest shakeup to UK visa and immigration rules in a generation, the new system has already attracted much debate. Much of this has focused on the implications for low-cost labour, an area where Britain currently relies on EU workers who may not meet the skills and salary thresholds set out under the new rules. However, it’s important to remember the new requirements will have wider implications, too - including more red tape for companies that rely on the EU as a source of skilled labour.

Here’s how the new UK visa and immigration system will impact recruitment for the energy, process and infrastructure industries in 2021 - and what hiring managers can do to prepare and protect their talent pipeline.

What are the new UK visa and immigration rules?

From 2021, the UK will use a so-called “points-based” visa and immigration system - the same model used by Australia and Canada - where migrants are scored points against criteria such as their English proficiency, minimum salary, education qualifications and profession. A minimum of 70 points will be required to apply for a UK work visa.

The specific criteria are as follows:




Offer of job by approved sponsor



Job at appropriate skill level



Speaks English at required level



Salary of £20,480 (minimum) – £23,039



Salary of £23,040 – £25,599



Salary of £25,600 or above



Job in a shortage occupation



Education qualification: PhD in subject relevant to the job



Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job



So, someone who speaks English (10 points) and has a job offer in a skilled role (20 points) from an approved sponsor (20 points) with a salary of over £25,600 (20 points) should meet the 70-point threshold required to be eligible.

Migrants looking to work in roles where UK skills are in short supply will also score higher. The current UK shortage occupation list includes many of the engineering roles required in the energy, process and infrastructure industries.

How do the new UK visa and immigration rules compare to other systems?

As mentioned above, the new UK visa and immigration system has precedents in Australia and Canada, both of which also use points-based systems to keep their doors open to high-skilled workers while taking a more restrictive stance towards low-cost labour.

Generally speaking, it’s a model that works well for companies looking to recruit for skilled roles as it reduces the barriers to bringing in talent from overseas. Sometimes, however, challenges arise when new skills shortages develop, and companies are prohibited from sourcing migrant labour to plug the gap unless governments react and tweak the policy so demand is met.

This could be keenly felt in the energy industry, where trends such as digitalisation are rapidly adding new skill requirements to the mix alongside traditional engineering and project management roles.

HubSpot Video

James speaking to BBC 5 Live on the new UK points system and the impact to business. Read the full transcript here

Will the new visa rules result in skills shortages for UK engineering firms?

For many UK employers, the new visa and immigration rules - and their implications for low-cost labour - could present huge challenges come January 1st 2021.

However, employers that mostly source high-skilled workers from overseas - such as companies in the energy, process and infrastructure industries - are much less exposed to a sudden supply cut. The kind of engineering talent required to work in the growing renewable energy industry and on projects such as HS2, for example, should easily reach the 70-point threshold in most cases.

There is, of course, an argument that many EU workers - regardless of their skill level - will be less attracted to roles in the UK once free movement is ended and they face a more complex visa process. We would hope this to have a limited impact in the energy industry, where employees are generally open to opportunities overseas (our recent research report found 85% of workers in the sector were interested in working abroad). However, it shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially while we know little about how the rules will work in practice.

How else will engineering recruitment be affected by the visa changes?

Another, perhaps more significant challenge for hiring managers and HR departments will be the impact of the new rules on their overall recruitment process.

However complex the UK’s point-based system turns out to be, it’ll necessarily create red tape in areas where currently there isn’t any. Every employer that sources talent from within the EU will be under pressure to respond with new processes, checks and balances - fundamentally changing the time and resource cost of recruitment.

Furthermore, some hiring managers may need to adapt to the new rules mid-recruitment cycle, potentially disrupting the supply of talent to larger energy and infrastructure projects already underway.

Another challenge for UK companies will be to get accustomed to working with immigration authorities. As a global workforce solutions supplier, one of our areas of expertise at Airswift is helping candidates and clients around the world navigate complex and demanding visa and immigration rules. We know from experience that visa application processes can be frustrating, with unpredictable timeframes and limited visibility on how far your application has progressed.

In some cases, we’ve seen clients have their applications rejected over small mistakes - forcing them to restart the process - as well as instances where decisions have been clearly influenced by external factors such as the political sentiment of the day. For companies that are used to free movement within the EU, the day-to-day challenges of dealing with immigration rules may come as a surprise.

We don’t yet know how the new UK system will work in practice. Many countries have been able to automate and speed up the application process through technology and automation. For now, though, hiring managers in engineering industries should expect the rules to have at least some impact on their HR resource requirements, turnaround time and planning.

Find out more about the top trends and challenges faced by the global energy industry

Click below to download your copy of the 2020 Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) report, a survey of over 21,000 energy industry professionals from Airswift and Energy Jobline.

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This post was written by James Allen, Chief Operations Director at Airswift

This post was written by: James Allen, Chief Operations Director