In a thought provoking comment by James Dyson in the Financial Times on 2 February 2014 titled “Stop kicking out bright foreigners, or put British jobs at risk, we are reminded that Britain cannot afford to isolate itself and must continue attracting the brightest and the best so as not to fall behind in a world where advances in technology, science and engineering are powering on full steam ahead.

I agree with Mr Dyson that our current immigration system imposes barriers to employers finding the right sets of skills for jobs in the UK where flexibility is key to meeting business needs. However, whilst there are barriers (including costs and paperwork for employers), there are also possible solutions within the current immigration framework. Some points to note following Mr Dyson’s commentary are:

  • Talented overseas students graduating from engineering disciplines at UK institutions can often remain in the UK for up to four months following the end of their degree courses in order to look for work.
  • If they find work, and a potential employer is willing and able to sponsor them (e.g. the employer must hold a valid Tier 2 Sponsor Licence), they are permitted to switch their status from their student visas (known as Tier 4 visas since March 2009), to sponsored work visas (known as Tier 2 visas since November 2008). An overseas national with a Tier 4 visa can fill a post as long as it is a role at NQF Level 6 or above and it is paid at the minimum appropriate rate without the employer needing to advertise the role to British workers as long as the application is made in the UK before the student’s visa expires. This flexibility was introduced following the deletion of the Post Study Work category that granted a visa for two years to allow graduates to look for and take on work in the UK.
  • Whilst those on student (Tier 4) visas cannot fill a permanent full time vacancy, once they are sponsored and have made an application to stay in the UK under Tier 2, they are allowed to work in the role for which they have been sponsored.
  • Employers are not obliged to offer only fixed term contracts to those sponsored under Tier 2. Permanent contracts are possible, and if a student has been sponsored under Tier 2 for a period of at least five years, they may be eligible for permanent residence in the UK as long as they are still required for the role in question. However, if they do not get permanent residence within six years, they are required to leave the UK and are subject to a ‘cooling off’ period of 12 months before they can come back to the UK.

Bright engineering graduates do therefore have a chance at filling the shortage of skills in the UK facing technology companies. What the Government might however want to think about, is that imposing ‘cooling off’ periods on those engineers that either graduate from UK institutions and stay to work here or those who come to the UK and fill these skills shortages is perhaps a step too far.  These ‘cooling off’ periods mean that Tier 2 sponsored migrants who leave the UK cannot come back to be sponsored under Tier 2 by the same or another employer in the UK for a period of 12 months (very limited exceptions apply) and this certainly does have the potential to limit the ability of UK companies to recruit and retain good employees that can fill necessary skills shortages given its inflexibility. Mr Dyson’s comment that without foreign engineers, Britain’s infrastructure would crumble, our aerospace industry would begin a sharp descent and businesses up and down the country would cease to grow, should therefore still make the Government sit up and take note.