Opinion: What the Shortage Occupation List expansion means for employing migrant workers in construction
Jamie Kerr and Alex McLean provide some practical information on how the construction sector can benefit from the expansion of the Shortage Occupation List.
In an attempt to address skills and labour shortages in the construction sector, a new report has recommended a number of changes to the UK visa rules. This follows a hefty 42 per cent drop in EU nationals working in the construction industry in the UK between 2017 and 2020, following the end of free movement of people as a result of Brexit.
The report issued by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended a number of occupations within the sector are officially recognised as shortage roles and are added to the official Shortage Occupation List (SOL). In practice, this means that it becomes easier to sponsor visas for migrant workers in these occupations as those on the list can benefit from certain relaxations of requirements for skilled worker visas.
The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has already welcomed this development, stating that shortages in workers caused 60 per cent of projects to be delayed. It has been estimated that as many as 210,000 new workers would be required to meet housebuilding targets of 300,000 new homes. Further immigration would allow the industry to grow, alongside ongoing skills based training and broader investment in allowing home grown talent development to ensure stability for the future in the sector.
Which occupations are being recommended for addition?
The occupations recommended for addition to the national Shortage Occupation List are:
- Bricklayers and Masons
- Roofers, Roof Tilers and Slaters
- Carpenters and Joiners
- Construction and Building Trades
In making its recommendations, the MAC noted that the construction sector is of strategic importance to the UK economy. However, as the review was expedited, there was no specific evidence for individual occupations in the review, and the MAC advised that the full extent of shortages will not be known until the full review is published. In particular, there was no evidence as to how shortages are being addressed using domestic recruitment. Therefore, the MAC makes it clear that although various occupations are being recommended for addition to the shortage list in this review, they may be removed in the full review.
It is also worth noting the construction sector relies heavily on self-employed workers, who are not always eligible for the skilled worker visa route.
What does being added to the shortage list mean?
In being added to the shortage list, the salary requirements to gain a visa are reduced significantly compared to an ordinary skilled worker visa application. The general rule is that the salary threshold for those working on the list is reduced to 80 per cent of the usual going rate for that profession. In applying this to the construction sector – an employee working a 39-hour week would be eligible for a visa for a salary of at least £20,480, as opposed to the current £25,600 threshold. It is worth noting that this number is not static and will be different based on the working patterns of each prospective employee.
Immigration and the construction sector
The MAC compared vacancies in the construction sector now (November 2022 – January 2023) to levels just before the pandemic (January - March 2020) and found that there was a 65 per cent rise in vacancies.
Given the level of vacancies, it is surprising that the sector does not make more use of the skilled worker visa route. 80 per cent of employment in construction is eligible under the mainstream visa routes, therefore it could be expected that sponsored visas would be used more regularly. However, in both 2021 and 2022, construction comprised only one per cent of all total visa applications. Furthermore, over half of the applications were for bricklayers and masons, or carpenters and joiners, although these occupations only comprise 20 per cent of total employees in the construction sector.
It is clear that there is a lack of engagement by the sector in using the visa system, despite visa sponsorship being a possible solution to skills and labour shortages.
With a large number of construction firms not registered as sponsors for visas, there is unlikely to be a marked increase in skilled worker visa applications from the construction sector unless more employers register. However these recommendations will open the possibility for firms who are registered and have vacancies to fill, to use this lower salary threshold to recruit more overseas talent to help reach targets and limit delays to jobs.
If you are an employer in the sector and wish to find out more about using the visa system to fill skills and labour gaps, whether you have already registered as sponsors or are considering if this is right for you, then get in touch with our immigration specialists who can help.
Jamie Kerr is a partner and Alex McLean is a trainee at Burness Paull