Joanne Starkie explores the implications the MAC’s latest SOL review will have for the UK’s Chemical Engineering industry
In May 2019 the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released a comprehensive report on their recommended changes to the UK Shortage Occupation List (SOL), which contains all of the specialist sector-specific roles that employers struggle to fill with UK professionals alone. Due to the high demand for professionals who are qualified to perform these occupations, non-EU citizens who work in these fields are not subject to the same stringent level of visa restrictions as other overseas candidates who wish to work in the UK in less specialised job roles. This means that whilst applying for a Tier 2 Visa is still an essential requirement for any non-EU citizen who wants to work in the UK, those who are taking up a role that is included in the SOL, benefit from lower application fees and fewer constraints.
A ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ Brexit would spell the end of free movement for EU citizens, who would then be subject to the same work visa regulations that are currently in place for individuals from countries outside of the European Economic Area (EEA). Specialists across the engineering sector, including those in the chemical engineering industry, have warned that the UK’s departure from the EU will be detrimental to the engineering sector.
A ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ Brexit would spell the end of free movement for EU citizens
How will Brexit impact the process and chemical engineering industry post-Brexit, and would the implementation of the MAC’s recommendations be enough to counteract the predicted shortfall in staffing levels?
The implications of the MAC’s findings
The MAC’s report highlighted key areas of concern in relation to the short and long-term recruitment and retention of experts in the UK chemical engineering sector. As a result, it has strongly advised the expansion of roles in the production and process engineering sub-sector on the SOL.
Specialists across the engineering sector […] have warned that the UK’s departure from the EU will be detrimental to the engineering sector
The implementation of this recommendation would, without doubt, be a positive step in the right direction, as it would make it much easier for overseas chemical engineering professionals to occupy a wider range of roles within the sector, and therefore alleviate some of the pressure on UK employers who are struggling to find suitably qualified staff. It is doubtful, however, that widening the scope of chemical engineering roles that are included in the SOL and the subsequent reduction of certain visa restrictions, would be enough in to attract to work in the UK without having to apply for a visa at all, would become less attracted to working in the UK, and would be more likely to follow an easier route of taking up employment in another EU country, which would result in the UK chemical engineering sector losing a significant source of sought-after expertise.
Recent analysis undertaken by Engineering UK has indicated a predicted future staffing shortfall within the engineering sector of 20,000 per year and even if the MAC’s recommendations are implemented, it is difficult to see how this shortfall can be counteracted in the event of a hard Brexit.
Reliance on overseas expertise
In an attempt to raise awareness of and interest in engineering professions amongst children and young people, the government launched the ‘Year of Engineering’ program in 2018, which has been broadly welcomed across the industry. Despite this, there is a still a significant shortfall in the engineering industry, with Engineering UK’s most recent report predicting an overall annual deficit of 124,000 jobs in its 2018 report.
The chemical engineering industry particularly relies upon specialised skillsets, for a range of roles. With British graduates still falling short, companies are still heavily reliant on qualified specialists from overseas, with 61% of employers across the sector saying that they were not confident that there are not enough people to fill high-skilled roles in 2018. With this in mind, it is unclear how the industry will cope after free movement ends, and European chemical and process engineers are no longer encouraged to choose the UK as their professional base.
With British graduates still falling short, companies are still heavily reliant on qualified specialists from overseas
Whilst the MAC’s review of the SOL is a positive step for the chemical engineering sector, the government needs to alleviate the uncertainty caused by Brexit and develop strategies to ensure that EU nationals who are so crucial to the industry will still want to come to the UK after Brexit. As it stands, it is difficult to determine how the sub-sector will deal with the growing shortfall in qualified professionals, especially if employers will soon no longer be able to rely on sourcing essential candidates from the EU. It is clear that a range of policies need to be put in place in order to reduce the short and long-term predicted staffing losses in chemical engineering, including the nurturing and development of homegrown talent, and continuing to attract experts from overseas, from both within and outside of the European Union.