Should we be attracting the ‘brightest and best’?

Immigration specialist, Yash Dubal argues that the government’s preoccupation with skilled workers could hamper productivity

The UK’s new points-based immigration system divides people into two camps. There are the skilled and the unskilled. In this binary worldview, all the spoils go to the winner. Those who meet the criteria for skilled workers have access to visas that allow them to enter the country, work here and, depending on official criteria, to bring their families and eventually settle. For those who are classed as unskilled, there are no such opportunities. If they do manage to get into the UK, it is usually at great expense via people traffickers, risking death on a dinghy in the Channel, or hiding in the back of a freight lorry.

This bias for skilled workers derives from a political aim. After Brexit that the government is intent on attracting the ‘brightest and best’ from around the world to build a more productive, competitive nation. The new immigration rules were introduced as counterweight to Free Movement and to allay the fears of many Leavers, who, in part, worried that the unchecked influx of unskilled workers from mainland Europe, and particularly from Eastern states, were undercutting native workers.  Many of these people left after the referendum. The exodus has contributed to acute manpower shortages in the care, health and logistics. So far, native workers have not filled the gaps. Instead, the government has been forced to issue ad hoc temporary visas for certain professions – none of which have been particularly well-received. After all, why would a Polish truck driver bother locating to the UK for six months when he could earn the same money with less stress and admin in Germany? In this respect, the politically motivated policy of favouring the skilled worker over the unskilled is illogical economic self-harm.

The problem here is the categorisation of skilled and unskilled. What are skills? How do you measure them? What skills does the UK need?  
Skill is largely conceptual. A hairdresser is skilled but would be unlikely to qualify for a UK skilled worker visa. But, with the right training, could a hairdresser become an engineer? Most probably if they have the right mindset and the motivation. In employment, skills are the specific expertise gained through experience and training. In immigration law, they are a set of arbitrarily attributed qualities that people need to meet in order to qualify for a visa.

Could a hairdresser become an engineer? Most probably if they have the right mindset and the motivation

According to the UK’s list of roles that migrants would qualify under the skilled worker visa route, and the other new visa routes being introduced this spring, skilled people are predominantly those at managerial level, those with some degree of technical capability, particularly in science, engineering and IT, and those who graduate from good universities.

Yet in reality, being skilled or low-skilled under these criteria is no indication of capability, or potential, or what someone can contribute to society. Indeed, many of thos classed as low-skilled contribute the most, because they understand the value of hard work, take training seriously and have a greater appreciation of opportunities. Yet, low-skilled workers from overseas are automatically barred from British society. In this respect, classing someone as low-skilled makes no sense if the aim is to attract the ‘brightest and best’. 

Indeed, according to an interim report from The Times Education Commission published recently, more than half of employers polled by PwC would like to see a greater emphasis on personal skills, such as time management, problem-solving, teamwork, presentational skills and communication skills – none of which are elements that score point in the points-based system, where skill is primarily linked to wages, as in order to qualify, a migrant must have a job offer that pays £26,500 or above, or the government approved going rate for the industry. 

Earnings really have little to do with the ability of a potential applicant, or his or her potential future earning power, so using them as a measure of suitability to work in the UK has the effect of keeping people from coming to the UK and doing low wage jobs. The result is inevitable. Without native workers to fill the vacancies, manpower shortages will increase. Meanwhile, future entrepreneurs, hard workers and diligent citizens are barred from entry, and will inevitably develop their numerous skills somewhere else.

Yash Dubal is a director of A Y & J Solicitors


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