What skills are we short of in the UK?

1 December 2017
What was claimed

The UK is short of skilled electricians, plasterers, joiners, chefs and nurses.

Our verdict

There’s no simple definition of a shortage skilled profession in the UK, but nurses and chefs are on the official Shortage Occupation List, because they’re considered to need workers from overseas. The other professions mentioned aren’t currently on that list, but some employers still report difficulties in recruiting them, especially joiners.

“We as a country are short of skilled people [...] We are short of electricians, plasterers, joiners, chefs [and] nurses.”

BBC Question Time audience member, 30 November 2017

There’s no simple definition for a skilled profession in short supply in the UK. The closest measure we have is the ‘Shortage Occupation List’ which is compiled by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)—they advise the government on immigration policy.

The list is designed to make it easier for companies in the UK to hire certain immigrants, where a particular skilled profession is believed to have a shortage of workers and be in need of labour from outside the EU.

There’s also a list for Scotland specifically.

The list currently includes nurses and certain skilled chefs, as the Question Time audience member said. But it doesn’t currently include the other occupations pointed out. Many of the occupations listed are in engineering, including electrical engineers in the oil and gas industry.

Nurses were added to the list by the government in 2015 to respond to exceptional pressures on the NHS.

Being absent from this particular list doesn’t mean there are no difficulties recruiting in the sector. A survey of small and medium-sized businesses who are members of the Federation of Master Builders, for example, shows that 61% of those who responded struggle to recruit joiners and carpenters, 37% plasterers and 28% electricians in summer 2017.

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Defining ‘shortage’

The Shortage Occupation List isn’t just about having a perceived shortage of workers in a profession—the MAC has to be satisfied that bringing in workers from outside the EU is a sensible policy response as well.

In essence, the Committee asks and works out the answers to three questions:

  1. Is the occupation skilled enough? (it has to require at least graduate level workers)
  2. Is the occupation in shortage across the UK, and in Scotland specifically?
  3. Is it sensible to bring in workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA)?

Determining whether there’s a shortage specifically involves a complex formula, but fundamentally it’s about spotting the right set of signals that indicate there’s a shortage in a certain profession, mixed in with directly consulting organisations who actually work within the relevant industries.

Here are some of the signals the Committee looks out for:

  • High vacancy rates may suggest employers are finding it hard to recruit. Some surveys also ask whether employers are having difficulties.
  • Rising average wages in an occupation may indicate there aren’t enough workers.
  • Low unemployment amongst people who work in a particular occupation.
  • Employer actions that may indicate a response to shortages, like increasing overtime or hours worked among their existing staff.

Occupations that ‘pass’ enough of these kinds of test become classed as being in shortage, provided there’s also enough supporting direct evidence from organisations in the field.

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