6 October 2021

Skills vs immigration: a false choice?

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"Skills, skills, skills" was the Prime Minister's answer to current workforce shortages and his strategy for the economic future, as he addressed Conservative conference. That was set out as an alternative to allowing further immigration to fill skills and labour gaps – but both business and the public may welcome a more balanced approach, writes Heather Rolfe.

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In his speech to Conservative Party Conference, Boris Johnson talked of the UK’s failure to invest in people, skills and equipment, relying instead on migrant workers: “The answer to the present stresses and strains,” he said, “Is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration.” Instead, he committed the government to “Building a high wage, high skill economy” – emphasising that “skills, skills, skills” would be his government’s priorities.

Most people would like to see better quality, better paid work. But the Prime Minister acknowledged that it will take time to implement the up-skilling process the government wants, while labour and skills shortages are creating queues at petrol stations and empty supermarket shelves today, and anxieties about the Christmas to come.

It’s also not possible for all roles, leaving the current problem of how to recruit to lower skilled jobs that are hard to fill locally. Higher pay, automation and better career pathways out of the lowest skilled roles would help. But lower skilled work will remain, and someone needs to do it. The findings of our latest immigration tracker reflect this: the public understands why employers find it hard to recruit to lower skilled jobs in places like hotels, warehouses and farms. This is not least because many people have done those jobs themselves.

Evidence on public attitudes finds that the public would support some general relaxations of immigration rules if it meant we could find the workers to fill those gaps. Our recent immigration tracker survey with Ipsos MORI found two thirds of the public believe that employers should be allowed to recruit form overseas for any job where there are shortages, and for temporary seasonal work in sectors such as fruit-picking and hospitality. Most of the public (55%) also support recruitment from overseas for lower skilled jobs that are hard to fill from within the UK.

While this shows strong support for relaxations, it is likely that the public would expect employers to have made efforts to recruit local workers before turning to migrants. And the message from the government – that migration has to be part of a skills strategy, not a replacement for one – is likely to gain public support.

At Monday’s Conservative Party conference session, led by Attorney General Suella Braverman MP, the Immigration Minister Kevin Foster spoke of the government’s intentions for a post-Brexit system: ‘We realised our immigration system had grown overly complex’. Referring to the previous combination of free movement and system for non-EU citizens, other speakers agreed that the new points-based system involves ‘one set of rules, not two’.

The party is trying to simplify its message on immigration – not a bad thing if it goes along with a system that works and that people can understand and support. Yet it looks as if the new system is going to involve many different rules, as sticking plasters are used to address crises in sectors such as road haulage and meat production.

There may be a way to square this circle. If employers can show a real commitment to training, to putting career paths in place, and to show they’ve done all they can to recruit locally, the public is likely to continue to support overseas recruitment. And the government may have more permission than it thinks to allow additional recruitment from overseas to fill gaps – so it needs to be equally realistic.