A wrong call on immigration

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 3 April 2014
Today’s chronic problem of worklessness and lack of opportunity for young people should surely be a vote winner for an opposition party.  It’s not just the young people themselves who are depressed by demoralising job search and the exploitation of unpaid internships.  Parents and grandparents can see what is happening and the way that we denying the 16- to 24 year-olds the opportunities that we ourselves enjoyed.  Moreover, look beyond the hype and there is little evidence of any improvement in the figure that really matters. The NEETS (Not in education, employment or training) figures issued in
February showed that more than 14 per cent of our 16- to 24 year olds fall into this depressing category – a proportion that effectively has not changed over the last year. 
 
Training managers of a left-of-centre persuasion will be looking to the Labour leadership for an articulate vision of a different employment market and for realistic policies to deliver it.  Now an obvious and understandable tactic is to hold back on detail until immediately before the election; in that way what is on offer looks fresh and original and the opposing parties are given little time to do a hatchet job.  While this is true, some early signs from Ed Miliband have caused some concern.  In particular, and I write as a life-long party member, I was very disappointed to see him use a Labour Party Conference as a platform to make an explicit link between immigration policy and apprenticeships. 
 
To remind readers, in September 2013 the Labour leader announced plans to make large companies train a new apprentice for each skilled worker hired from outside the EU.  In that way, it was claimed, 125, 000 new high quality apprenticeship places would be created over a five year period.  To quote: “we are going to say to any firm who wants to bring in a foreign worker that they also have to train up someone who’s a local worker, training up the next generation”. 
 
I’ve had no personal experience of visas and permits for overseas workers so I’ve undertaken some research on the system and, more importantly, asked those who have that experience.  It seems that employees are brought into the UK under what is known as tier two of the current points-based immigration system.  The ‘general’ category covers skilled workers with an offer from a UK-based organisation.  They need a valid certificate from a sponsoring employer who is registered with the UK Border Agency and there is a tough points system in place (taking into account qualifications, expected earnings, and the type of sponsorship).  Everybody I have spoken to has told me that the system, while not impossible, is very demanding and no employer would embark on the tier two process unless there was a strong business case and an urgent need.  Importantly, anyone in the EU countries (and the politically explosive issue has been Romania and Bulgaria) already has full permission to work in the UK.  
 
One HR manager told me that the system was such a hassle that she would only consider it for an existing member of staff whose permission to work was coming to an end and was highly valued and difficult to replace.  Another HR manager told me that, in her IT-dominated consumer products organisation, it would only be relevant for highly specialist technical skills and fluency in a particular foreign language. 
I’ve also discovered that the number of people able to enter the UK under tier two general is subject to an annual limit of 21700.  Now 21700 times five is 108000; if you add on some other tier two categories (Ministers of Religion, Sports and Creative Workers and Intra-Company Transfers) you are approaching Mr. Miliband’s 125000.  If this is the basis of his calculation it is misleading. Many of the larger organisations bringing in workers under tier two will already have apprenticeship schemes in place so for them it will be a matter of ticking a box to demonstrate compliance.  The university where I teach, for example, brings in about a dozen people a year, almost all of whom will have a unique research capability uncovered during competitive interview; it employs a much greater numbers of apprenticeships.
 
Sadly this idea has all the marks of sound-bite politics.  It seeks to link two totally separate issues in the skills arena.  There is an urgent need to create more meaningful apprenticeships places but not through a form of sanction or punishment for sourcing highly specialist positions from overseas.  Ed Miliband has been badly advised and whoever suggested this idea should have looked at the statistics in more detail and talked to practitioners. Perhaps, therefore, the last word should go to one of the HR managers I consulted.  When the idea was outlined she simply said: “My God, I’ve been through one nasty bureaucratic process to meet an urgent business need – I now have to go through another bureaucratic process to set up another scheme which I neither need nor want.”
About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com
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