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Skills gap: UK needs one million migrants a year

The post-pandemic immigration rate of 1.1 million arrivals a year could be the key to solving Britain’s skills crisis if sustained, according to think tank the Social Market Foundation (SMF).

With Office for National Statistics (ONS) data from August to October pointing to a 565,000 shortfall in the number of those working or seeking work in the UK, younger migrant workers from more populous nations may prove to be the UK economy’s salvation, according to the SMF report, Routes to Resolution.

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Jonathan Thomas, senior fellow at the SMF, said current estimates for immigration levels forecasting a fall from current highs of around 1 million are inaccurate.

Thanks to strong demand from a skills-deprived and ageing UK, and massive supply from rapidly growing countries that have close links to the UK, like India and Nigeria, Britain may see the current high level of immigration continue into the medium and long term.

He said: “Current high levels of migration could well be the norm rather than the exception.

“Over the longer term the UK’s deep historical connections with some of the most populated countries across the globe – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh – have the potential to create far more sizeable flows of people to the UK than the smaller and stagnating populations of the EU ever realistically could.” 

Gary McIndoe, managing partner at immigration specialist law firm Latitude Law, agreed with Thomas.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Clearly it’s a massive rise year on year [up 435,000 in 2022 on 2021] due to the pandemic’s restrictions on world travel, but the job market in the UK shows no sign of losing its appetite for workers across all skill levels despite recession. 

“I believe the 2023 figure will be broadly the same,” McIndoe said.

Many UK businesses of all sectors and sizes, he added, are realising that a sponsor license, which gives them the ability to employ non-resident labour, is an “essential part of their HR planning.” 

Victoria Short, CEO of Recruiter Randstad UK told HR magazine that the UK ought to welcome any approach which helps mitigate the talent shortage.

She said: “With well over a million vacancies right now, there are multiple sectors suffering from massive skills shortages. Nursing vacancies have hit over 100,000. Hospitality vacancies have topped 150,000. Social care vacancies have increased to 150,000. Vacancies in these sectors have been growing steadily for years and pre-date Brexit as a decade-long trend.”

Short added that while the number of nursing students grew last year, the first time in a generation, this talent will take time to come through.

She said: “In the interim, the UK would benefit from a loosening of the immigration rules to help our front-line services.”

To ensure the opportunity brought by high immigration is not wasted the report recommended new policies including establishing skills partnerships with migrants’ home countries, where the UK would support the training of workers some of whom would then bring those skills to Britain.

One crucial factor however will be the public’s reaction towards increased immigration.

The British press has often been declaimed for its attitude towards immigrants, including in 2015 when UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the UK to curb hate speech in its press - not long after The Sun published an article comparing refugees to cockroaches.

James Kirkup, director of the SMF said: “Immigration is going to be a major part of British national life in the decades ahead. 

“We need a deeper and richer national debate about what that will mean and how we can approach migration issues in a way that meets our economic needs and acknowledges the concerns that some people have about population changes.”

McIndoe likewise remained cautious about how the increased migration levels might be received among the public.

He added: “SMF director James Kirkup’s plea for a deeper and richer national debate on immigration seems unlikely to be heeded in view of the main political parties’ refusal to face obvious truths across issues from labour shortages to small boat crossings.”

The SMF report Routes to Resolution is available to read in full here.